The Highfalutin’ Hubris of Public Health

For anyone tempted to suggest that our nation’s top health officials could begin shoring up their badly eroded credibility through public dialogue, the FDA’s new head honcho Robert Califf has a message for ordinary Americans: sit down and shut up.

Asked about complaints from the public at an April 29th journalism conference, Califf declared “I’m 70 years old, I’m relatively impervious to critique.” After “surviving a harrowing confirmation process,” he mused, “what are they going to do to me now?”

That sort of towering arrogance from federal officials is all too familiar to those of us working in the field of nicotine policy – that is, finding innovative ways to help Americans quit cigarettes which take nearly half a million lives each year.  We have been pleading with Califf for months to simply acknowledge the shining fact that millions of Americans have successfully quit smoking by switching to vastly safer nicotine vaping.

That accomplishment, widely proven in the medical literature, makes nicotine vaping the most successful smoking cessation method ever devised – with far higher efficacy than the patches, drugs, and gums made by Califf’s former employers in the pharma industry.  But Califf has never responded to us and instead he’s leading FDA on a regulatory warpath that has so far outlawed more than 99 percent of all vaping products.

To scan FDA’s social media feeds reveals endless comments from Americans imploring the agency to stop stripping away their right to switch from combustible tobacco to vaping. But Califf told his cheerleaders – excuse me, the journalists – that he has “a few quips” about the public input. “The intensity of the heat emitted by what I call the twitterati, people who like to comment on FDA decisions, is inversely proportional to the quality of the evidence.” The praise he got from Politico reporter Alice Miranda Ollstein was typical of those sycophants when she gushed that “he’s taking it in stride [and] isn’t easy to rattle.”

Among the evidence Califf thinks unworthy of his attention is the fact that not a single person has ever been injured or died from nicotine vaping in the 20 years since these products were first sold. He’s also unconcerned that his colleagues at the UK’s Royal College of Physicians and National Health Service recommend vaping so smokers can quit and even distribute vaping products in that country’s hospitals and clinics. Our government itself reports that for the first time in decades cigarette sales are rising, no doubt fueled by the vaping prohibition mania, but that tragedy also earns no more than a yawn from Califf.

Yet this blind indifference has lots of ignominious company among our public health mandarins. After an outbreak of lung injuries in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control misnamed the crisis as the “E-cigarette or Vaping use-Associated Lung Injury.” But when investigators determined that vaping had zero connection and the cause was actually black market THC liquids, CDC did nothing to set the record straight, leaving a wide majority of Americans with the entirely false impression that vaping is more dangerous than smoking.

“The CDC made a gross error,” said one researcher, Georgia State’s Michael Pesko. The CDC’s misinformation about vaping is “actually killing people in my opinion,” since smokers would be less likely to switch. When he and 75 esteemed scientific experts wrote to CDC’s director Rochelle Wolensky urging her to fix the misinformation, she simply ignored them.

Notice please how these federal agencies and the press are keen to lecture the public about how we should lead our own lives – but rankle like offended royalty when anyone dares to speak back. No public official has been more strident in maligning vaping as former US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who insists “I’m always happy to engage with people about the pros and cons of different health policies.” Yet when we invited him to have a polite, written exchange of ideas on vaping policy, he declared “I’m not getting sucked down that black hole.”

For lessons in pomposity, Califf, Wollensky, and Adams have a role model in Michael Bloomberg, America’s self-anointed nanny-in-chief, who bankrolls a nationwide phalanx of prohibition groups with hundreds of millions annually.  Often wrong but never in doubt, Bloomberg is ever eager to harangue Americans from a lectern about their own lifestyles and expects only genteel applause. “When I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed,” he once told the New York Times. “I’m heading straight in and it’s not even close.”

So when two dozen of the most preeminent nicotine science experts in the world – mere mortals in Bloomberg’s eyes – wrote him recently asking simply for a private conversation about how his anti-vaping crusade was driving people back to cigarettes, the answer was easy. Bloomberg uttered not a syllable of reply.

Perhaps Bloomberg’s right that it must feel heavenly to manipulate the lives of others, blithely aloof to any objections from the peasants. There’s just one problem with that hubris – the 10 million-plus Americans who vape are also voters of every political stripe, angry ones that could form an electoral wave that will dash the public health poobahs off their shabby thrones.