The House is poised to vote on a bill tomorrow that is a poster child for how Congress can’t seem to let reason and facts – rather than moral posturing and virtue signaling – drive policy.
The bill is H.R. 2339, advertised as a vaping bill meant to address the real problem of high underage vaping rates. A noble cause that already received Congressional action with a 21+ law passed late last year.
The current version of this bill is so much more. It would impose a full-on, total prohibition of any flavored tobacco products despite the fact that apart from e-cigarettes, underage use of every tobacco product category in the U.S. is at all-time lows with a downward trajectory. Government data on menthol cigarettes, for example, shows teen use of menthol cigarettes at 1.3%. You read that right – 1.3%.
Pragmatic progressives oppose this bill because it goes in exactly the wrong direction on reduced-harm products. Rather than working to give addicted smokers more options for switching to flavored non-combustible alternatives, it outlaws them — end of discussion. For oral nicotine products, the ban is permanent – even the FDA can’t override the ban no matter the science or the evidence. Indeed, there are several flavored products on the market right now that the FDA has already found are a less harmful alternative for smokers. This counterproductive legislation tells folks looking for alternatives simply, “Too bad.”
But we in the pragmatic progressive community are not alone.
A growing chorus of objections from some of the most progressive members of Congress, along with a coalition of civil justice groups like the ACLU and National Drug Policy Alliance, are joining this fight.
Here’s how the ACLU put it: “With a criminal legal system that incarcerates Blacks at nearly six times the rate of white Americans and a prison population that is 67 percent Black and Latinx, any prohibition on menthol and flavored tobacco products promises continued over-criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color. We hope we can work together to avoid repetitions of policies that are intended to protect youth and communities of color, but instead, only further engrain systemic criminalization and racism.”
None of these issues would be dogging this bill if the proponents had stuck to the plan as advertised – reversing underage e-vapor use. Instead of narrowing the bill so that the solution fits the problem, proponents go after legal products for adults 21 and older, and on a
scale that’s hard to fathom. Consider this: flavored tobacco products on the market today have a larger retail market than the entire U.S. cannabis market, legal and illegal. This leads to the question: If the criminal prohibition of cannabis has caused incalculable harm for social justice, and alcohol prohibition too was determined as a colossal failure, why on earth would we expect a different outcome with flavored tobacco products?
I am a progressive — a “stupid” progressive — according to Mr. Pallone, but I along with 40 million adult smokers in the United States deserve hope that comes from innovative products — not condescension — and our progressive communities should not be subjected to adults being arrested for smoking a cigarette. The current version of this bill should be rejected by all, especially those of us in the progressive community.