CHICAGO — At a recent tobacco conference, an attendee complained to me about the media. He thought we fueled the confusion and negative hype over the category by repeating government officials’ conjecture and wishful thinking. We report on every statement from regulatory officials, even though their plans don’t always come to pass.
“The tobacco industry has stayed the same for years, despite what the FDA wants,” he said.
And for the most part, he is right. The backbar has had its ups and downs, and e-cigarettes, pouches and other innovations have undergone a lot of change. But fundamentally, premium cigarettes are still the cornerstone. From a business standpoint, Marlboro, Newport and Camel have remained in the lead, with upstarts in all the subcategories growing but in tiny increments. On the regulatory side, to change tobacco rules, the federal government must undertake a prolonged, multistep process. At the same time, agencies must stay within Congress’ own set of limits. That’s not to say the feds are standing still; they are moving along that slow, mandated path. And when they overstep, lawsuits follow.
The “media problem” occurs when government figureheads get on their high-profile soapboxes and declare that change is coming. These declarations are often toothless, given the laws on the books, the required regulatory process and certain legal challenges, but nonetheless these people draw in the media. For almost two years, that official was Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before he resigned. But then first lady Melania Trump tweeted her concern about underage vaping, and President Trump announced plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes.
The first time I sensed this “all bark, no bite” dynamic was when I found myself writing a third article on yet another Gottlieb interview—all within two months. He was saying the same things but with seemingly little to show for it. And still, major media outlets published fresh stories on the same old words.
What brought this problem into focus for me was the Vapor Technology Association’s (VTA’s) response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) statements on illnesses and deaths possibly tied to vaping. Tony Abboud, executive director of the VTA, Washington, D.C., said, “The VTA has previously said public health departments should fully investigate and release all information about these cases. Either there’s a legitimate basis to tell people to stop using e-cigarettes or they are feeding the hysteria around a different product to conflate the issues by failing to distinguish e-cigarettes.”
The key words to me were “feeding the hysteria.” Essentially, the CDC was saying it did not know if the reported deaths were linked to the use of e-cigarettes. The CDC and various state agencies all still had work to do. Nonetheless, they made headlines with their running hypothesis: E-cigarettes equal death. Abboud said the FDA’s statement was more on the mark by suggesting a tie to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the reported incidents. He also had a message for the media: The VTA “strongly encourages all media outlets to promote the clear statement made by the FDA, which fully understands the dangers posed by illicit products and the THC products at issue,” Abboud said.
Live the Experience
At CSP, we want to remain objective for the sake of our readers. But truth relies on trusting sources, data and methodologies. It sometimes means relying on the best information at hand, which may not be the most accurate.
Trump may not be on the mark on flavored e-cigarettes, but it’s worth some space in these pages because it’s his first time chiming in and, in his position, he may have the pull to enact a change in the law. At least that’s what the CSP editors decided after a healthy discussion.
We’re not perfect. But I am confident in my own instinct to at least hesitate before reporting on whatever a high-ranking government official says. Even if it’s the president of the United States.
Angel Abcede is tobacco editor of CSP Daily News.