We all know the risks of tobacco abuse: Science has been quite clear that it’s not great. But science has also shown that innovative, safer alternatives to cigarettes can limit negative externalities on health and the environment. Even so, regardless of evidence, local and international institutions are fighting against vaping — and it has terribly negative consequences on public health, the environment, and the economy.
The number of adult smokers in the world has decreased—from 23.5 percent in 2007 to 19 percent today—and that number is expected to be as low as 17 percent in 2030. More and more consumers have chosen alternatives to traditional cigarettes that companies have developed to convert smokers to smoke-free products while keeping and transforming their business. Some companies, like Philip Morris, declared they would eventually switch to medical-related products (such as inhalers) once any type of tobacco-related product would not be market fit anymore.
Innovation is an innate and natural process in companies and humankind. As described by world-famous economist Joseph Schumpeter, it is nothing more than “doing things differently in the realm of economic life.”
But how can companies innovate to reduce their environmental and health impact if regulators hamper this process?
Unfortunately for smokers trying to quit, the U.S. has done just that by recently announcing a countrywide ban on flavored e-cigs (considered too appealing for young people). What’s more, another law has forbidden vaping product shipment. And in other countries like Italy, the government is trying to equalize taxes on alternative tobacco products to traditional cigarettes.
These national regulators are getting their bad advice from the World Health Organization, which is pushing governments and institutions to wage a political war on innovative alternatives to cigarettes.
Politicians and regulators often speak about the “public interest” that would be pursued with this regulation. References are associated with “sins” and harm. “We have to protect citizens.” But are we really protecting them? Moreover, is it something that the government should do for any potential harmful behavior?
Let’s start with the first question.
Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman wrote, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
Noble intentions can easily cause devastating consequences, and history is full of episodes of this kind.
To look at a more contemporary example, we can take Colombia, a country that the World Health Organization has awarded for its efforts to fight the tobacco market.
In 2016, the World Health Organization celebrated Colombia as the most virtuous country to fight tobacco use. Colombia increased the tobacco tax rate and tripled it from 2016 to 2018.
According to official data, cigarette consumption fell by 34 percent in 2018, but at the same time, a substantial black market developed, doubling the number of illegal cigarettes sold in Colombia from 2016 to 2017. Illegal trade has a public cost, in 2017 thousands of jobs were lost, together with $144 million in taxes.
The Philippines were also celebrated for their extraordinary “Sin Tax Law,” which raised taxes on cigarettes, heated tobacco products, and electronic cigarettes. Yet, in 2020, 53% of contraband seized by the government in terms of value were tobacco and cigarettes.
Another country, India, has interestingly banned all vaping and tobacco-heating products while keeping an ordinary regulation on traditional cigarettes, which are proved to be more harmful.
These policies are dangerous for their methodology, as they were developed without considering the scientific method, and their effects, as they can jeopardize achievements obtained in harm reduction.
Behavioral studies, medicine, and psychology have widely demonstrated that folks can be vulnerable to behaviors that might create harm and addiction.
What science has also proved, however, is that it is possible to develop alternatives that can reduce damage and limit negative externalities while accepting, and this is key, that individuals should still have the free will to choose what is best or worst for themselves.
Addressing individual choices has been the obsession of policymakers, institutions, and economic behavioralists, from the most authoritarian dictatorships to the softer “incentives” put in place by the Nudge Theory.
Finally, it is not a surprise that some innovations meet resistance from regulators and institutions. However, what is a surprise is when these innovations can substantially reducing risk and are fought by the government.
Reaching a world without smoke is not impossible, but only if governments get out of the way.