Image by Win McNamee

How the Most Conservative Man in Washington Became a Vaping Advocate

Grover Norquist is using vaping to reassert his crusade against taxes

Conservative firebrand Grover Norquist set the twittersphere ablaze on Tuesday with the following debate criticism:

Many were baffled by Norquist’s tweet. Was Norquist using the debate as an excuse to clown vape culture? Surely Norquist — a widely known, if not highly respected, conservative intellectual — wasn’t suggesting the candidates discuss something as trivial as vaping, right?

Norquist might have been trolling, but he wasn’t joking. Vaping advocacy is Grover Norquist’s new pet project, and thus the issue du jour for many on the political right. The FDA’s vaping regulations are a classic case of a government overreach, proponents say, which will hurt small businesses and put millions of lives at risk.

Norquist seems an unlikely champion for vaping: His political reputation is that of a radically conservative obstructionist troll.

Norquist garnered political clout in the ’00s as head of Americans for Tax Reform, a nonprofit dedicated to lowering taxes and reducing spending. He wants to cut the size of the federal government in half, “down to the size we can drown in the bathtub.” His M.O. is having conservative politicians sign a written promise to oppose any and all tax increases. If an elected official betrays their pledge, ATR smears them. 60 Minutes called him the most “powerful” (and “dangerous”) man in Washington in 2011, and many have blamed him for the Congressional gridlock that’s plagued the Obama presidency. (Ironically, contributions to ATR are not tax-deductible.)

Norquist is not what you’d call a cool guy, so for him to champion a hot new trend like vaping seems odd, at first. Earlier this year, Portlandia depicted the stereotypical vaper as a dapper urban hipster — the cultural antithesis to Norquist.

Portlandia

But Norquist is the ideal vaping advocate in many ways. He’s made it his life’s work to combat government overreach, and to him, the vaping regulations passed under Obama are just the latest instance of a bloated, money-hungry federal government.

Norquist’s interest in vaping started when he noticed hundreds of vapers turning out to protest vape taxes in their respective states, says Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. (Calls to ATR went unanswered.)

Five hundred people showed up at a demonstration in Washington State, Norquist told VICE. A state legislator in New Mexico lost an election partially because of her stance on vaping. Vaping was becoming a political movement, and Norquist was quick to join.

It’s worth noting that Norquist’s influence has faded in recent years, and he’s been opportunistic in his vaping advocacy. Conservative voters have become increasingly disdainful of so-called “establishment politicians,” but in vaping, Norquist has found a way to reassert his anti-tax message.

“Grover respects that this is a group of people who don’t want to be taxed and are mobilized,” says Conley, who isn’t part of ATR, but welcomes Norquist as a vaping advocate.

Current vaping advocacy revolves around federal statutes, however — specifically, a set of FDA regulations that will remove 98 percent of the vape devices from the market, Norquist tells VICE. (Others estimate as high as 99.9 percent.)

This May, the FDA finalized a rule giving it authority to approve or deny all tobacco-related products (including vapes) created after Feb. 15, 2007. Under the rule, the FDA has authority to review new products to make sure they comply with the health standards set in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. Products that were already on the market aren’t subject to oversight, however.

Vaping didn’t become popular until 2009, Conley says, and virtually none of the vaping companies that have cropped up in recent years can afford the costly review process, which costs “millions.”

But the issue is about more than taxation and small business regulation. Both Norquist and Conley see vaping as a pressing public health issue. Vaping offers a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, they say, and has helped millions of smokers wean themselves off deadly, addictive tobacco products. Conley, a former smoker himself, is one of them.

“Essentially, you have the FDA treating vaping products, which are treated by many public health groups as less hazardous than smoking, 100,000 times worse than they ever regulated combustible, deadly cigarettes,” Conley says.

The relative safety of vaping is questioned, though. Conley pointed to a study from the Royal College of Physicians in the UK, which states vaping is 95 percent less harmful than regular smoking. But vaping hasn’t been subject to nearly as much scientific scrutiny as smoking, leaving some worried there could be unseen health effects to the practice. Indeed, the FDA says its regulation is predominantly about assessing the effects of vaping.

Regardless, the FDA rules passed under Obama will decimate the vaping industry, Conley says. And that perceived threat has helped Norquist elbow his way back to the political fore, albeit shrouded in a plume of water vapor.