Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Union of Bootleggers and Baptists

Columnist George Will can be counted on for a well-turned Edwardian phrase and for spotting public hypocrisy. His latest column contains both.

girl-resizeWill writes that e-cigarettes have become the latest victim caught in the collective snare of bootleggers and Baptists. These seeming antagonists, he says, are actually collaborators, with Baptists providing the unwitting moral cover for the unsparing avarice of bootleggers.

The Baptists in this case are a growing list of governments taking aim at so-called vaping, which involves inhaling smoke from a sleek metal cylinder filled with nicotine and unidentified other chemicals. The bootleggers include companies that make nicotine patches to wean smokers away from smoking and the 46 states that hold $206 billion in tobacco bonds – the pledges of tobacco companies to make amends for decades of damage to public health.

Because of the embarrassment to the public weal of admitting the need for continuing significant levels of smoking, Wills says it is easier to deplore the demerits of e-cigarettes.

There is plenty of cause to discredit the safety of e-cigarettes, which recent data shows are becoming more favored by young people than their old-fashioned, buy-them-by-the-pack cigarettes. Because there are few rules to prevent vaping, young people find them an irresistible symbol of rebellion and blowing smoke literally in your face.

Wills points out that e-cigarette marketing plays to this youthful attitude of strutting your hot-self stuff with brands such as Unicorn Puke and Stoned Smurf.

Wills bases his column on the reflections of economist Bruce Yandle who has written a piece for Regulation quarterly that identifies state governments as bootleggers masquerading as Baptists on e-cigarettes. In Wills signature phrasing, “E-cigarettes can expect bootlegging regulations, couched in moralistic cadences.”

king-james-IIn vintage Wills form, he recalls – as if he were there to witness it in person – that King James I said “smoking is loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain and dangerous to the lungs.” A pretty good diagnosis for 1604.

But the clarity of his prescience didn’t prevent the good king from dispatching some of his subjects to settle Virginia, where they promptly took up tobacco farming. An excellent example, Wills would say, of “combining high-mindedness and low cunning.”

Wills column also reflects another of his traits – proving a point that doesn’t matter. E-cigarettes are just another conduit of addiction – and, who knows, maybe even a worse one than cigarettes. They also could prove to be another generation’s gateway into illicit drug use, ingesting unknown chemicals for the thrill of it.

The motives of e-cigarette opponents may be tainted a smudge. So what? Most actions arise from conflicted positions. We seldom act on our better angel’s advice without a word or two from the devil.

hypocrisyThere is ample public skepticism of public actors and institutions to placate Wills’ irresistible urge to point out public hypocrisy.

In the case of e-cigarettes, what shouldn’t be overlooked is the long history of intentional hypocrisy by the tobacco industry. It has crouched behind everything from race cars and cowboys to the U.S. constitution to hide its true colors – an industry profiting from the engineered addiction of its customers.

As best I can tell, claims by e-cigarette manufacturers that they are committed to delivering pleasure in every puff is just their version of foggery. Their mission is addict another generation or two of smokers. For that, they deserve every Baptist-backed bootlegger hypocrisy that comes their way.


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