I'm finally attacked by name on the floor of the Senate


One of the problems with working in policy—whether at think tanks or in academia—is that it's hard to measure one's impact. We kind of believe that ideas have some effect in the real world (if we're being optimistic), but it's rare for us to see the evidence as to ourselves personally. Even intermediate measures—do people even read our stuff?—can be hard to come by.

In my case, I finally know that someone is reading my work from 22 years ago! Straight out of college, in 1993-94, I worked at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market policy organization in Washington, D.C. One of the areas I worked in a lot was the FDA and tobacco policy—this was shortly before the Clinton FDA asserted jurisdiction over tobacco, a move that the Supreme Court said in FDA v. Brown & Williamson (2000) was contrary to the statute. The capstone of that year was getting my first Wall Street Journal op-ed published: "Feel a Heart Attack Coming? Go to France".

Last week, I finally got tangible proof that someone was reading my pieces from back then. As part of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (D-NH) attack on CEI, she said:

CEI lobbied politicians, conducted symposia, and published policy papers and op-eds with titles such as 'Safety Is a Relative Thing for Cars: Why Not for Cigarettes?' CEI's then-policy analyst, Alexander Volokh, even went so far as to describe the act of smoking as a civic duty.

"As the documents that we have just submitted for the record detail, CEI's mission was to portray the FDA as 'an agency out of control and one failing to live up to its congressional mandate.'" . . .

For the video, you can check out approximately 5:15 of this C-SPAN link, where she pauses for a second or two in her notes, carefully considering how to pronounce my last name before settling on [ˈvoʊlɒk] (rhymes with "bow lock")—I don't object to that pronunciation, even though we use [ˈvɑːlək] (rhymes with "frolic") and the Russian pronunciation is [ˈvoləx].

Sometimes you can point to something I wrote way back when I was 20, and I might say, "You know, I don't really stand by that work anymore"—people do lots of stupid things when they're 20. But in this case, I do still stand by my work, so it's an honor to be attacked by the same sorts of people that I was trying to attack back then.

But why is anyone talking about my work from 22 years ago? This is part of last week's "Web of Denial" Senate resolution (see here for the actual resolution introduced by Sen. Whitehouse) attacking corporations and "allied organizations" for obfuscation on tobacco, lead, and fossil fuels. This campaign has been covered elsewhere—today I'm focusing on me!

"Safety Is a Relative Thing for Cars: Why Not for Cigarettes?" is the title of my very first published op-ed (ignoring the pieces I got published in the Daily Bruin while I was in college). It was published in Advertising Age on January 31, 1994, and you can read the whole thing here. The article talks about Premier, the smokeless cigarette briefly marketed by R.J. Reynolds in the late 1980s—and contrasts the negative reaction to Premier with the uniformly positive reaction to safer cars like Volvos. (These concerns are newsworthy again too, with the advent of vaping.) Here's an excerpt:

So why is it that improved safety is treated so differently when the activity is smoking rather than driving? When R.J. Reynolds came out with its Premier "smokeless cigarette" several years ago, one would think the anti-smoking forces would have welcomed it. After all, here was a cigarette with virtually no sidestream smoke and no tar. Instead, they came out against it with surprising force.

Here were some of their objections: (1) Premier isn't a cigarette, it's a "nicotine delivery system." (2) Since it doesn't reduce the risk of heart disease, "it's like comparing jumping from the 10th floor of a building with jumping from the 7th floor." (3) Young people will be lulled into a false sense of security and will therefore smoke more. (4) Since there is no smoke, high school children will find it easier to smoke Premier in restrooms. (5) You can use Premier to smoke crack. (This point actually appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.)

"Cigarettes are unsafe," the anti-smoking line seemed to go, "ergo, let's ban the safer cigarette." The scary part is that even now, in the midst of debates on smoking bans in bars and restaurants, and even with secondhand smoke's deadly new status, Premier would probably still meet the same fate if it were reintroduced today.

But these same arguments are ridiculous when applied to the Volvo. How about, "The Volvo isn't safe; you can still get into an accident with it"? "The Volvo will lull people into a false sense of security, and so people, especially the young, will drive more." "High school children will find it easier to borrow their parents' Volvo." "You can smoke crack in a Volvo." And here's the clincher: "Volvo isn't a car, it's a mileage delivery system!"

Should we ban the Volvo because it makes safety claims? Any safety claim is false, the argument might go, since driving is still riskier than staying at home. (Why were those people in the ads driving anyway?) But this would be silly. Both driving and smoking are avoidable, risky activities, but freedom means freedom to make risky decisions.

Would Premier have increased smoking deaths because non- smokers would have started smoking or be cause overconfident smokers would have smoked more? Maybe. But if confident Volvo drivers got killed more often, that wouldn't stop the Volvo from being a safer car. Both the Volvo and the Premier reduce the risk of injury and death for everyone con cerned. Anything that prevents their introduction is reprehensible.

My other piece, on smoking as a civic duty, was only published in CEI's newsletter, CEI Update, in July 1994. I haven't found an online version of this, so here's the important excerpt:

The government has portrayed smoking as deeply immoral, and many Americans agree. But with all of the burdens that have been piled on smoking, ranging from excise taxes to free-speech restrictions, it is fast becoming a moral issue in the other direction.

Americans should consider this view. That the city of Davis, California can have an ordinance that prohibits smoking in public, and honor it with scarcely a whimper of complaint, is shameful. I don't smoke—I find it a filthy habit—but I believe that smoking ought to be something that we can disapprove of and yet fight to keep legal and unimpeded. Perhaps, in the fine tradition of civil disobedience championed by Thoreau, we should even think of smoking as a civic duty. Perhaps, every January 11th—the anniversary of the Surgeon General's original 1964 report on smoking—we should all light up, giving a filter-tipped finger, as it were, to a health-obsessed government. We wouldn't even have to inhale.

Anyway, the moral of the story is: I'm glad my work is still (finally?) being talked about, even if I had to wait until I was in my 40s.