Interview with Dr. Michael Siegel, Public Health Professor at Boston University
Vaping propaganda is something that our community has been trying to fight against for a long time. Thankfully, there are a number of intelligent voices doing their best to dispel the FUD. Dr. Michael Siegel is one of those voices. His blog The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary is one of the best resources for anyone that wants to delve into the world of vaping and public policy.
We reached out to Dr. Siegel to see if he would be interested in commenting on his work for our blog and he was kind enough to provide some terrific answers. The conversation has been transcribed below:
MBV: You are a committed fighter in the battle for vaping rights. Do you think progress is being made?
MS: Yes and no. The positive developments are that the vaping community has successfully made its voice heard in a number of prominent public policy debates. No longer can policy makers simply ignore vapers and their opinions. I applaud the vaping community for stepping up to the plate and voicing its concerns publicly. This will make a big difference in future legislative battles. It also alerts the FDA to the fact that they need to take the opinions of vapers into consideration.
The negative development is that medical, health, and anti-smoking groups continue to ignore the rights of vapers and to demonize vaping products, using false and misleading information to do so. This campaign of deception jeopardizes vaping rights and leads to public policy that protects cigarette sales at the expense of the public’s health (and the individual health of vapers).
MBV: What is the vaping community’s greatest weakness?
MS: I think the vaping community’s greatest weakness is the paucity of respected scientists, physicians, and other health practitioners who are on board. There are a few, such as myself, Dr. Joel Nitzkin, Dr. David Abrams, Dr. Ray Niaura, Dr. Joe Gitchell, Dr. Carl Phillips, Bill Godshall, Dr. Richard Carmona, and Dr. Gil Ross. But most of the mainstream medical, public health, and anti-smoking organizations are stark opponents of electronic cigarettes and view the vaping community as a bunch of addicts who are deceiving themselves into thinking that e-cigarettes can help them quit smoking and improve their health. We need to somehow break into the mainstream of public health and medical thought in order to increase the power of the vaping community.
MBV: What is the vaping community’s greatest strength?
MS: Clearly, the greatest strength of the vaping community is its commitment, dedication, passion, and willingness to speak out publicly to inform the legislative process and specific policy debates. The vaping community has literally made the difference in blocking a number of specific policies that would have been devastating from a public health perspective.
MBV: Some people think that anti-smoking groups are frustrated with vaping’s success, i.e. the fact that a free market solution has created a passionate anti-smoking customer base without any influence from a governmental organization. Do you think there is an aspect of jealousy when anti-smoking organizations start lobbying against vaping?
MS: Absolutely. I think that subconsciously, anti-smoking groups are jealous that they didn’t think of this. This is not their baby, so they really don’t want to see it succeed. They are more concerned about their prestige, and they perceive that their prestige will be reduced if someone else’s solution turns out to be successful. They are looking for a public relations victory more so than a victory for the public’s health.
MBV: While the CDC has continued to lobby against vaping we have seen Public Health UK come out in favor of this new technology. Why do you think there are such differing attitudes between these two developed nations (US/UK)?
MS: I think that the UK is, in general, more tolerant of differing viewpoints and dissent. Therefore, health practitioners are less reluctant to come out and share their views, even if they differ from the “mainstream.” In the U.S., anti-smoking advocates are terrified to share their personal opinions if they differ from the established dogma of the movement. Also, I have to credit anti-smoking groups within the UK for having the courage to take differing opinions. I think that ASH-UK’s willingness to break beyond traditional ideology and endorse e-cigarettes as a potential harm reduction strategy has made a huge difference. In the UK, a prime anti-smoking group has come out in favor of e-cigarettes as a bona fide public health strategy. In the U.S., there really isn’t a single “mainstream” organization that has played a similar role.
MBV: What do you think is the most prevalent misconception concerning vaping among government officials?
MS: I think there are three prevalent misconceptions, all of which are damaging:
1. That vaping is just as dangerous as smoking.
2. That vaping is just as addictive as smoking.
3. That vaping is a gateway to smoking and will normalize tobacco use.
All three of these misconceptions have been shown to be false. Nevertheless, anti-smoking groups continue to disseminate these false and unsupported claims widely to the public.
MBV: Why are you passionate about the vaping industry?
Simply because I believe that this technology has the potential to transform the nicotine market in a dramatic way – away from combustible tobacco products and toward a much safer alternative. Vaping products have the potential to be a true game changer. They could potentially save more lives than any previous strategy in tobacco control. There are risks that need to be addressed, but if properly managed, these products could play a role in saving more lives than almost any previous anti-smoking intervention.
MBV: Who are the vaping community’s greatest political allies?
MS: Ironically, the vaping community’s greatest allies are the conservatives in Congress. I say ironically because the conservative politicians are not usually the ones who support progressive public health measures. But politics makes strange bedfellows and in this particular story, it is the conservative policy makers who are able to go beyond the anti-nicotine ideology and see the potential value of these products. They are also concerned about the fate of small businesses, which the more liberal policy makers don’t seem to care about.
MBV: Who are the vaping community’s greatest political foes?
MS: Ironically, the vaping community’s greatest political foes are the more liberal members of Congress, especially the policy makers who have played the greatest role in combating the tobacco industry in the past. Unfortunately, they cannot move away from their entrenched ideology and cannot see e-cigarettes for what they actually are.
MBV: The FDA continues to push back their deadline for the “deeming regulations” being considered for the vaping industry. Do you think the fact that they are taking so long to decide is a good or bad sign?
MS: From a public health perspective, I think it is actually a good sign. The reason is that I believe the most likely explanation for the delay is that the rule is taking a long time to get through the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB is likely examining the likely impacts of the rule on small businesses. If their interpretation is the same as mine, they will realize that the proposed rule is going to be devastating to the e-cigarette and vaping industry, especially the smaller businesses. Hopefully, they will require some changes to rectify this situation.
Dr. Siegel has over 25 years of experience in the field of tobacco control. He previously spent two years working at the Office on Smoking and Health at CDC, where he conducted research on secondhand smoke and cigarette advertising. He has published nearly 70 papers related to tobacco. He testified in the landmark Engle lawsuit against the tobacco companies, which resulted in an unprecedented $145 billion verdict against the industry. He teaches social and behavioral sciences, mass communication and public health, and public health advocacy in the Masters of Public Health program at Boston University. You can read his blog The Rest of the Story: Tobacco News Analysis and Commentary at this link.
Something to think about:
If you could ask Dr. Siegel one question, what would it be?