Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Bans on substances that people want can have unintended consequences

“In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure,” writes Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The war on drugs has, if anything, been worse.

Why, then, do people want to ban e-cigarettes? Or flavored e-cigarettes? Have anti-tobacco warriors like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative and their political allies forgotten history?

My latest story for Medium looks a new research that points to a path forward for e-cigarettes that, at least in theory, could satisfy all but the most uncompromising voices on both sides of the great vape debate. Increasingly, evidence shows that it’s possible to make it harder for young people to vape, while preserving access to e-cigarettes for smokers who use them to quit.

You can read the story here.

Last month, a scientific journal published a peer-reviewed study with encouraging news for anyone concerned by the impact of smoking on health.

The study in the American Journal of Health Behavior identified more than 17,000 cigarette smokers who purchased a Juul starter kit, which includes a rechargeable e-cigarette and four flavored pods. A year later, more than half said they had stopped smoking and switched to e-cigarettes, which, by nearly all accounts, cause much less harm than combustible tobacco.

“It is a startling result,” says Cheryl Healton, the dean of New York University’s School of Public Health and former president of the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit. The study has limitations, she says, but its findings align with experience in the UK, where smoking has declined sharply as public health authorities encourage smokers to switch to e-cigarettes.

There’s just one problem: The study was conducted by Juul Labs.

The research, as a consequence, has been summarily dismissed by tobacco control activists.

This is understandable. It’s also unwise.

You can read the rest of this story on Medium.

In 1976, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a brilliant and eccentric chemist who concocted hundreds of psychoactive drugs in a home-based laboratory in the hills of Berkeley, California, cooked up a batch of MDMA, the drug that later became known as Ecstasy or Molly. He then tried some, as was his habit.

He loved it. “I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria,” he wrote in his lab notes afterwards. “I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible. The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued throughout the rest of the day and evening. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience.”

This is quite the endorsement, if only because Shulgin took a lot of drugs during his long life.

Thirty five years later, MDMA is having a moment. A clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, run by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPs, produced impressive results, moving the combination of MDMA and therapy closer to FDA approval. The first study of MDMA-assisted therapy for alcohol-use disorder, conducted by researchers at Imperial College in London and the University of Bristol, delivered encouraging, albeit very preliminary, findings. Researchers studying MDMA, as well as experienced users, say that the drug could be an effective way to treat other psychological ailments, while improving the health and happiness of so-called “healthy normals.”


You can read the rest of this story at Medium.

Atlantic Sapphire, a Norwegian company, calls itself the largest land-based aquaculture company in the world. It is building a giant salmon farm, known as the Bluehouse, on what used to be a tomato field in Homestead, FL, about 40 miles southwest of Miami.

Lately, things have not been going well.

In March, Atlantic Sapphire destroyed five hundred tons of fish, the equivalent of about 600,000 salmon (1), after a filtration system failed to keep water tanks clean. “Fish gathered at the bottom of the tanks, disrupting the flow of new water, causing increasing mortality,” the company said.

The previous July, Atlantic Salmon conducted an emergency harvest of about 200,000 fish after “disruptive construction work… including loud sounds and severe vibrations stressed the fish,” the company said. The fish were then “vacuum pumped . . . through an electrical stunner,” given an electric shock and bled to death, according to documents obtained by Animal Outlook, a nonprofit group based in Washington DC. that has filed a complaint against the company.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for people either. Three workers were hospitalized in April after being overcome by fumes from an unknown gas, according to Seafood Source.

You can read the rest of this story here on Medium.

Take a look, please, at this poster from the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey, a nonprofit supported by tax dollars. Setting aside the absurd notion of a drug-free New Jersey — presumably, there are no plans to ban alcohol, caffeine and aspirin from the Garden State — the clear implication is that e-cigarettes will kill everyone who tries them. This is so patently false that it is unlikely to deter anyone from vaping. It is, however, an extreme example of how unscientific, distorted and one-sided the debate about vaping has become in the US.

You can read the rest of this story here on Medium.

It is not often that well-respected nonprofit organizations take the side of the powerful against the weak. Yet that, in my view, is where the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Campaign find themselves these days in the debate over e-cigarettes.

That’s why I’ve been spending time lately reporting and writing about e-cigarettes, and why I hope to continue to do so. The topic has been neglected, and it’s important because the lives of tens of millions of smokers are at stake.

Yesterday in Medium, I wrote a story about bans on flavored e-cigarettes that have been enacted by three states — New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island — and a number of cities, including San Francisco and Chicago. Similar bans are being debated around the country.

Public health experts, some of whom have worked on tobacco issues for decades, tell me that these bans are misguided. E-cigarettes are far less harmful than smoking. Their use by teens is declining. They are also a tool that can help smokers quit.

So why the bans? Because parents, most of them white and middle-class, have been whipped into a frenzy about vaping by groups like Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative, as well as by the U.S. Surgeon General and the CDC. My reporting has led me to believe that they have exaggerated the dangers of vaping and downplayed the benefits. This isn’t to suggest that anyone who is not a smoker should vape. They most definitely should not. The nicotine in e-cigs is addictive and it may have negative affects on developing brains.

But fears of a so-called epidemic of vaping among teenagers have led to these bans, which keep flavored vapes out of the hands of smokers for whom they could be life-saving. (In England, the government recommends vapes as an aid to quitting.) The 34 million smokers in the US tend to be less-educated, poor, more likely to suffer from mental illness, LGBTQ or Native American, when compared to the total population. They don’t have political clout. They’re mostly unheard in this debate.

You can read my story here.

My story about Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and their campaign against electronic cigarettes generated more reaction that anything I’ve written in years, with the possible exception of my reporting on the workplace abuses at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The story appears in the current issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which gave me the time and space to do the story right and at length, and then run it outside of the usual paywall.

On Twitter and by email, I heard from dozens of vapers who told me that they were able to quit smoking by turning to e-cigarettes, where they got their nicotine fix while avoiding most, if not all, of the harms caused by smoking. Bloomberg and Tobacco-Free Kids are trying to ban all flavored vapes.

Not surprisingly, Bloomberg, Tobacco-Free Kids and the Truth Initiative responded to the story with a critical letter which, among other things, claimed that “there is limited and inadequate evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for smoking cessation.” That’s just not the case, as Clive Bates, an anti-smoking activist and a defender of vaping, points out in this long blogpost that dissects and rebuts the letter, line by line.

All of this–the reaction to my story, the defensive response from Bloomberg & Tobacco-Free Kids, the way anti-vapers are willing to distort or misread the science around vaping, and the use of kids as a justification for all manner of regulation and prohibition–has persuaded me to keep reporting on tobacco control, at least for a while. Government policies on tobacco control affect public heath and social justice, and the debate needs to be informed by intellectually honest science.

My latest story, for Medium, looks at a proposed nationwide ban on menthol cigarettes, which could pave the way for a ban on all flavored tobacco products. I’m honestly not sure what to think about the menthol ban, but I thought it needed a closer look. While a menthol ban will almost surely save Black lives — Black smokers overwhelming choose menthol brands — a prohibition on menthol cigarettes will give law enforcement a reason to crack down on Black people and jail the makers and sellers of black-market cigarettes. You may recall that Eric Garner, who was choked to death by a New York City police officer in 2014, was being stopped for selling “loosies,” i.e., untaxed cigarettes, one at a time.

You can read the story here.

The philanthropy of the very rich is an exercise of power, says Stanford professor Rob Reich. As such, billionaire philanthropy deserves scrutiny and not automatic gratitude.

With that in mind, I began a deep dive three months ago into a campaign against electronic cigarettes funded largely by a $160-million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Much of that went to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the US’s most powerful anti-tobacco nonprofit. Meantime, Michael Bloomberg, the patron of Bloomberg Philanthropies, billionaire founder of the Bloomberg media empire and former New York City mayor, spent millions of dollars of his own money fund political anti-vaping efforts, notably two ballot measures in San Francisco that led to ban on e-cigarettes in the city. A city where, not incidentally, you can still buy combustible cigarettes — which are much more dangerous than e-cigs — and marijuana. That makes no sense if what you care about is public health.

My research and reporting, which included 30 interviews, led to a story published today by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The tobacco control movement is “neck-deep in intractable, internecine warfare” over vaping, Cliff Douglas, formerly of the American Cancer Society told me. Bloomberg, Tobacco-Free Kids and the major lung, cancer, and heart charities are on one side, opposing vaping, and pointing to its impact on kids and teens. Public health experts, by contrast, argue that e-cigarettes are a disruptive and potentially valuable technology that can and do help people quit smoking. In the UK, where the government encourages smokers to switch to vaping, you can buy e-cigarettes in some hospital gift shops!

Bloomberg’s money means that one-side of the debate has dominated the public conservation. You’ve probably heard horrible things about vaping, some of which are demonstrably false.

My story is about social justice as well as public health. Much of the outcry about vaping has been driven by well-educated and well-to-do parents who understandably want to protect their kids. The smokers who might benefit from switching to e-cigarettes tend to be poor and less educated; they lack political clout.

The great irony of this story is that evidence is emerging — it’s preliminary evidence, to be sure — that the moral panic over vaping might be leading more people to chose combustible tobacco over e-cigs. That would be a public-health tragedy.

You can read my story here. It’s timely because the federal government and many states are considering legislation to ban or tax e-cigarettes. Please share it if you find it worthwhile. I hope to continue to follow this debate, so please let me know what you think.

Little-known outside the world of psychedelics and drug policy, Rick Doblin is one of the most effective nonprofit leaders in America. Doblin is the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, better known as MAPS, which for 35 years has been trying to develop psychedelic medicines and advocating for the responsible use of psychedelic drugs.

Doblin, in my view, is a brilliant strategist who has done more to change the narrative around psychedelics than anyone, with the possible exception of the writer Michael Pollan. He has built political alliances on the right and left, worked closely with medical researchers and, as best as I can tell, made few enemies along the way. MAPS is on the verge of a major breakthrough by securing FDA approval for the use of MDMA, along with talk therapy, as a prescription medicine to treat PTSD.

I tell the remarkable story of Doblin and MAPS at some length in the new issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The story is ordinarily paywalled but it is available for free until April 1. Here’s a link.