MINOT, N.D. — The COVID-19 pandemic has given us all an object lesson in why public health officials and experts need to be mindful of how the public perceives them.
We got confusing mixed messages about masking. Many public health officials rushed to sign off on left-wing protests during the pandemic even as they derided events, such as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, as "superspreader" events.
It's almost as if many of these supposedly fact-based, science-driven experts were filtering their public health pronouncements through their political belief system.
This, unfortunately, has driven a not insignificant decline in the trust the public feels for public health experts.
Still, throughout the pandemic, many demanded that our elected leaders step aside so that the technical experts could govern us. Gov. Doug Burgum certainly came under that fire. His opponent in the last election, Democrat Shelley Lenz, announced during her campaign a plan to address the pandemic by appointing technical experts to make decisions for her.
The idea didn't get much traction. We do not live in a technocracy. We elect people such as governors to make decisions, not appoint other people to make decisions.
Getting advice is one thing. Abdication is another.
Here's another example of the dangers of technocracy: A Yale School of Public Health study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, has found that San Francisco's ban on flavored vaping products may have driven people — kids, in particular — back to traditional cigarettes.
"Analyses found that, after the ban’s implementation, high school students’ odds of smoking conventional cigarettes doubled in San Francisco’s school district relative to trends in districts without the ban, even when adjusting for individual demographics and other tobacco policies," YaleNews reports.
The problem with technical experts is that they tend to be myopic.
Vaping is not a healthy habit, they conclude correctly, ergo it should be restricted if not banned outright, they conclude incorrectly. Kids shouldn't be smoking or vaping, but if they're going to do one, wouldn't we rather it be the latter?
Human behavior as it relates to public policy is complex. Humans like to do unhealthy, often risky things, like base jumping. Or vaping. If you try to prohibit one unhealthy behavior, humans will often find their way to another. Or they'll keep doing the old ones; laws be damned.
The goal of public health policy should be to inform the choices we make. Americans picking up a vape or a cigarette should know the risks. But beyond that, free adults should be allowed to free choices for themselves.
The law in San Francisco wasn't just a ban on flavored vape products for kids. The ban was for everyone. If it's pushing kids back to traditional smoking, a similar trend is likely true of adults.
That's ... a win?
Vaping, though, again, not a healthy endeavor, could still be a public health win if we let it because using a vape is healthier than a cigarette. If vaping can attract people away from cigarettes or other types of traditional tobacco use, that's a net gain for public health.
Except when the public health experts myopically promote policies that remove the incentive to move away from smoking to vaping.
Here in North Dakota, the public health experts have convinced policymakers to crack down on vaping. Vape products have been lumped in with traditional tobacco use when it comes to the state's public smoking ban. There are restrictions on the sale of flavored vaping products. Self-service displays of vaping products can only be located in specialty tobacco stores.
Are these policies helping us toward the goal of a healthier public?
Or just satisfying the ambition of myopic public health technocrats?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.