I quit smoking (again) last winter. I’m confident this will be the last time. And among the pleasures of liberation is feeling a new freedom to sound off on behalf of fellow nicotine junkies — a (happily) dwindling minority who are not only persecuted, maligned and exploited, but frequently reminded that it’s all for their own good.

Fact is, taken as a whole, the anti-­smoking public health movement of the past half-century has done considerable good. But like any crusade fueled partly by self-righteousness, it’s always at some risk of being hijacked to serve more selfish ends and of simply going too far.

Consider, for example, its largely hostile reaction to e-cigarettes.

On his “Conversable Economist” blog, Macalester’s Timothy Taylor recently warned of a “Bootlegger/Baptist coalition” that is threatening to snuff out the potential of “vaping” to help smokers find a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes.

Citing a recent paper on the issue by Jonathan Adler and others in “Regulation” magazine, Taylor explains that a “bootlegger/baptist coalition” can become a powerful force whenever people who long to restrict a harmful thing (alcohol, say, or gambling, or smoking) make common cause with others who are profiting handsomely by peddling that harmful thing and are therefore eager to stiff-arm any competition.

The only American more enraptured by Prohibition than Billy Sunday was Al Capone.

The potential benefits or harms of vaping are still being studied. Questions concern its physical effects as well as whether it mainly helps people quit smoking or mainly helps create new nicotine addicts. (It played no role for me.)

The evidence so far seems encouraging that most vapers are current or former smokers and that vaping is at least safer than smoking.

While opponents like to emphasize the unknowns, one thing is certain about e-cigs: They are a threat to the profits flowing from the traditional nicotine economy.

And the “bootleggers” enjoying those profits are more numerous and varied than you might think. Potent ulterior motives may exist to burden e-cigarettes with regulations and taxes.

The most obvious nicotine bootleggers are of course the big tobacco companies. They have jumped into the e-cig business themselves, mainly with “closed” vaping systems that mimic old-fashioned cigarettes. More tellingly, they are also lobbying for e-cigarettes to be regulated similarly to tobacco products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue rules later this month that could, if sufficiently strict, stunt the rapidly evolving vaping marketplace, especially the smaller makers of “open,” pipe-like vaping systems that can be used with a variety of vaping liquids.

Devotion to safeguarding public health may not be Big Tobacco’s only motive for supporting heavy e-cig regulation. And some big drug companies, makers of other “nicotine replacement” products such a patches or gum, are likewise pushing e-cig regulation, according to the report in “Regulation.”

Meanwhile, there is another gang of nicotine “bootleggers” whose smoke screen of good intentions may be a bit harder to see through. That would be state governments, which almost two decades ago now cut deals with Big Tobacco to share handsomely in its profits from exploiting smokers’ thraldom.

That partnership came about through settlements of state lawsuits against the tobacco firms. The various agreements provided large perpetual annual payments to states in exchange for laws that protected the tobacco companies from competition, ensuring that they could jack up prices and make smokers pay the bill.

Both the tobacco firms and the states have done just fine under this arrangement. Like many states, Minnesota cashed in its tobacco settlement, selling bonds backed by the ongoing settlement payments. It used the proceeds to help resolve a budget crisis in 2011.

But Minnesota couldn’t quite kick its tobacco-loot habit. Just two years later, the state imposed a $1.60-per-pack increase in its cigarette tax, giving Minnesota one of the nation’s highest rates in one of the most regressive of taxes.

Defenders of the lawsuit settlements, and of punishing tobacco taxes, like to claim that lofty cigarette prices help reduce smoking rates. The evidence is mixed.

Adult smoking rates in America, which recently reached record lows, have declined gradually and steadily ever since the Surgeon General’s famous warning about smoking’s hazards 51 years ago. That decline hasn’t accelerated since prices started soaring. Youth smoking rates, on the other hand, have dropped sharply in recent years.

Anyway, so long as states have a pecuniary interest in the sale of cigarettes, their motives may be complicated when it comes to regulating and taxing e-cigs, which are increasingly cutting into those sales. Minnesota is today one of only two states that tax e-cigarettes.

In this year’s legislative session, a bill was proposed to change the way Minnesota taxes e-cigs. Spokesmen for vaping consumers and retailers say it would have severely increased taxes on the “open” systems that are the main challenge to Big Tobacco. It didn’t pass, but proponents will doubtless try again.

Some regulation and taxation of e-cigarettes makes sense. But while it isn’t yet clear how much of a benefit the vaping trend can be to smokers, keep an eye on those out to crush it before we have a chance to find out.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.