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.