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The Surgeon General Signs On to Gottlieb’s Epidemic
December 19, 2018
4 min to read

The Surgeon General Signs on to Gottlieb’s Epidemic

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Jim McDonald

The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has declared teenage vaping to be an epidemic. He says he “does not use that word lightly,” and has issued an advisory to make the public aware of the problem.

He is urging local officials to license sellers, restrict access to flavored vape products, and tax and set minimum pricing for vaping products — policies that would affect adult smokers and vapers more than it would teens. If the $50 price tag for a JUUL starter kit isn’t high enough to keep teens from buying it, what price would be appropriate? As with the rest of his presentation, this hasn’t been thought out. Neither has the idea of declaring a crisis based on occasional teen vaping.

“We know that nicotine exposure during adolescence can uniquely harm the adolescent brain, impacting learning, memory, and attention,” said Adams at his press conference. “We know that exposure during this critical brain period can lead to further addictions. And we know that the notion that e-cigarette aerosol is harmless water vapor — something even my 14-year-old son thought was true — is a myth.”

Why is it an epidemic? Because, as we know from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s early release of selected data from a national survey and Monday’s Monitoring the Future survey results, twice as many high school kids — about 20 percent — tried a vape at least once in the last 30 days this year than last.

That makes teen vaping a full-blown public health emergency, say Adams and Gottlieb, and combating it will require the involvement of every federal, state and local government agency, and even the pharmaceutical industry. The SG held a press conference along with Gottlieb and their boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, to endlessly repeat Gottlieb’s now-familiar talking points.

Addiction, adolescent brain development, potential respiratory damage...

It’s nothing new. Two years ago, the previous surgeon general issued a report on vaping and young people, laying out all the points of concern that would turn into shouting and screaming after the FDA and anti-vaping activists discovered JUUL and hatched a full-blown moral panic. There was some science included in that report, but all the press and public heard were the scare words.


And that’s what they’ll hear now. A moral panic is successful when people ignore logic and their own common sense, and instead indulge the comforting notion that this thing is the problem, and everything might be okay if we can just take care of it. So vaping is the fear of the day — or maybe the year — and we’ll all pitch in and help because, well you!

Every time the Surgeon General or FDA commissioner says vaping puts teen brain development at risk, or calls vapes “tobacco products,” vaping teenagers dismiss them as liars and clowns. And the kids are right. The federal public health officials sound just like the drug warriors of the seventies and eighties: vaping can affect brain development, it sometimes contains hazardous metals, it could damage your lungs, it might cause addiction. Here’s your brain on vape.

They’re incapable of being honest with young people, and the kids know it. They can smell adult dishonesty a mile away, and every lie, every exaggeration, every ridiculous piece of hyperbole about nicotine or ultrafine particles just makes vaping that much more attractive. Government dishonesty is the worst adult dishonesty, and the least likely to lead to anything productive.


The surgeon general says that he has “spoken with vaping advocates,” which probably refers to his recent activity on Twitter, where he got into several long discussions and for some reason blocked Clive Bates, who is among the calmest and most reasonable people around. The SG essentially scolded vapers for not putting kids first in the vaping debate.

Sure, why not? He is, after all, a highly respected government official. He’s allowed to show up 10 years into an argument, wail “What about the children?” and declare the discussion over. And he’s allowed to lecture people who understand smoking and vaping a lot better than he does about what works and what doesn’t.

But that’s not a good way to conduct public health policy. He should listen to the voice of the people who have been most affected by smoking and vaping: vapers. There is more at stake here than teen experimentation with JUUL, including 34 million smokers who continue to get sick and die at alarming rates. But don’t expect to hear anything about them from the surgeon general or FDA commissioner anytime soon. After all, there’s a real epidemic to take care of.

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Jim McDonald

Vaping since: 12 years

Favorite products:

Favorite flavors: RY4-style tobaccos, fruits

Expertise in: Political and legal challenges, tobacco control haters, moral panics

Jim McDonald

Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy

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