Technology can trump tough love


“It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” Calvin Coolidge wrote in 1910 to his father, a newly elected senator in Vermont.

Coolidge, an advocate of limited government, wrote those words 13 years before becoming the 30th U.S. president in 1923. More than a century later, it seems politicians still need reminding of this imperative.

We wrote recently about a proposed victims’ rights constitutional amendment that has had unintended consequences.

Feel-good and tough-love approaches are especially appealing in election years. This year is no exception. Candidates and legislators often woo voters with minimal regard for the cost or consequences of their proposals. Sometimes, efforts to legislate and regulate turn ordinary Americans into lawbreakers or foundering pariahs.

Consider these two:

Smyrna’s City Council has passed an ordinance to prohibit drivers using handheld cellphones within city limits. The ban takes effect April 2; the city hopes the Legislature will pre-empt its ordinance with a statewide law. And some legislators are keen to do just that.

Georgia data found about 10 percent of the 1,686 fatal wrecks in 2010 involved distracted drivers (175). Although distracted driving was already against the law, Georgia banned texting while driving on July 1, 2010.

By 2015, just 3.5 percent of fatal wrecks involved distracted drivers (72). Was the decline due to the texting ban? Was it improved automotive technologies? Was it reduced congestion, or all of the above? Distracted driving causes many wrecks, but the evidence is inconclusive that banning handheld devices reduces crashes, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute.

The Institute notes, sensibly, that technological advances, including collision avoidance systems, are more likely to mitigate distracted driving: “An approach that addresses all kinds of distraction, instead of focusing specifically on cellphones, will be most successful in improving safety.”

In fact, one could argue Georgia’s texting ban probably causes more wrecks now: Many drivers take their eyes off the road to check the phone hidden on their lap. Furthermore, it would seem that with many communities bemoaning a shortage of law enforcement, adding nefarious cellphone scalawags to the police to-do list is unwise.

Then there’s smoking. Once the height of sophistication, smokers are now pariahs. The 2005 Georgia Smokefree Air Act prohibits smoking in most public places.

Nobody is as good a quitter as a smoker: They can do it again and again. President Obama chewed nicotine gum; others try nicotine patches, lozenges or antidepressants.

Yet 36.5 million Americans still smoke. In Georgia, about 11,700 adults die from smoking-related illnesses annually; nearly 18 percent of adults smoked in 2015. Across the nation, more than 480,000 annually reported deaths (nearly one in five) is smoking related. About 16 million Americans have at least one smoking-related disease, resulting in nearly $170 billion in direct medical costs.

There are less harmful alternatives. This month, the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee will consider an application to the Food and Drug Administration for a product that heats but does not burn tobacco. Called IQOS, it drastically reduces smokers’ exposure to the harmful compounds released by burning tobacco.

Already sold in nearly three dozen countries, including Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Russia and South Africa, heat-not-burn (HNB) products expose smokers to 50-90 percent fewer harmful and potential harmful compounds, according to Britain’s Committee on Toxicity.

The British government agency Public Health England reports e-cigarettes are also less harmful than traditional cigarettes, “by at least 95 percent.” E-cigarettes are battery-operated, heating a liquid containing nicotine into vapor. “Vaping” eliminates many of the harmful compounds resulting from burning tobacco, but the clouds of vapor are unnerving and e-cigarettes are banned in many establishments.

In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products, including applications for innovative Modified Risk Tobacco Products (MRTP).

While 35 product applications have been submitted since 2011, not one has received a MRTP stamp of approval. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that seven in 10 smokers say they want to quit. Bureaucrats need to seriously consider alternatives to cold turkey, especially those proven less harmful.

All-or-nothing approaches are not always justified. Instead of shrinking citizens’ options and turning them into pariahs, liars and lawbreakers, embrace the opportunities technology offers, whether they are advances in collision avoidance systems compensating for distracted drivers or weaning foolish smokers with smarter cigarettes.

[Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]