Grover Norquist is America's most famous—or infamous—anti-tax crusader. Americans for Tax Reform, the nonprofit group he's run since 1985, is responsible for the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a promise signed by the vast majority of elected Republicans in DC that essentially commits them to oppose any tax increase. During the contentious congressional budget battles of the past decade, Norquist was blamed for gridlock by leading Senate Democrat Harry Reid and called "the most powerful man in Washington" by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes.
In the last few years, though, Norquist's public profile has gotten a bit groovier. He hasn't abandoned the hardline opposition to taxes, but his profile and influence has declined, especially as Trumpism has become a more potent force than mere anti-tax conservatism. In the meantime, he's gone to Burning Man (his Playa name is "Grover") and gotten really into vaping. Not just vaping himself occasionally, but promoting the idea that vaping and vapers will decide the future of America.
"Trump failed to speak to the Vaping community tonight," he tweeted the night of the first presidential debate. "Missed opportunity." This is on-brand for him; in February, he told the Washington Examiner that "the next election, at the presidential level, and a lot of other levels, is going to be determined by the vaping community."
Like cigarette smokers before them, some vapers view their right to inhale as something that should be protected from nanny state interference: Earlier this year, a Republican congressman from California named Duncan Hunter vaped in protest during a debate over whether to ban vaping on planes, saying, "This is the future." Is Norquist one of these cloud-blowing mavericks? Is his pro-vaping stance related to the money his group has received from tobacco companies? What does any of this have to do with taxes?
I called him up to talk vaping and hopefully answer some of those questions. A condensed version of our conversation appears below.
VICE: You've tweeted that a Clinton presidency will result in a vaping "prohibition." Why do you think that?
Grover Norquist: Because the FDA has ruled that 98 percent of vaping products will be illegal shortly. As soon as this goes through the courts, there's a death sentence. They've set up prohibition. This is not a maybe. This is not, "If Hillary gets elected, she might do something." All she has to do is not sign the legislation the Republicans have been pushing.
What the FDA did was, they said any product built before 2007 is going to have to go through some new multimillion-dollar approval process. They set the date to cut off everything except the stuff that was at the very beginning. I mean, some people have a conspiracy theory—maybe true or not—that the big boys got in early, and they're cutting off everyone else. It would cut off 98 percent of the products, and then you get, "Oh, sure, you can have your little strawberry-flavored vaping juice, you just have to spend $3 million going through the FDA process." These products have been used for years, and you know what's in this stuff. There's no secret sauce. This is not weird chemicals or anything. And this is infinitely better than cigarettes.
How did you come to think of vaping as such a politicized issue?
When people try to tax something, we [at Americans for Tax Reform] get calls from the states or Washington, saying, "Hey, in South Carolina, they're trying to tax vaping." Then we discovered that in Washington State there was a rally with 500 people. In New Mexico, there was an [anti-vaping] state legislator who lost an election on the subject. I've been to a couple of the vaping conventions, and it's like a political movement. These people understand that their life is on the line. I went up to a guy who's running as a write-in against the Republican in Pennsylvania. The Republican voted for the tax increase, and the guy doing the write-in campaign runs a little vaping store. They passed a law that's a 10 percent tax on all your inventory. So this guy is getting hit with a $40,000 or $60,000 bill, and he doesn't have the money, because he hasn't sold the product. I talked to the guy and to other vapers who said they go out of business if we don't get this fixed.
Is there any indication that Donald Trump would sign legislation that would prevent the FDA from enacting these new vaping regulations?
Yes, because the Republican Congress would make him. There's no reason to think he wouldn't. I've talked to guys around there, and we haven't yet gotten them to focus on speaking to this issue as loudly as I think they should. We've started the ball rolling in terms of raising it, and that's the point of the tweets, that's the point of the travel I've done to some of the conventions.
Why do you think vapers are so passionate about vaping?
Vapers spend more time vaping than people in monasteries spend praying. It's hours in the day. You're telling all your friends, and some jerk politician is going to come screw with you? It's a very powerful issue, it can be focused in this election, and it can be focused in the next election. What you have to have is people who see a problem, recognize it, and feel energized to do something about it. And when it's a lifestyle issue—gay marriage, home-schooling, vaping—it's who you are. It's a definition of what you do.
You've got 9 or 10 million [vapers] who don't like to be taxed, but the threat is not just raised taxes, the threat is the FDA bans most of the products that you've been selling or using. It would signal that vaping would be regulated the way that cigarettes are, which is fascinating because the old line from politicians was that we're going to raise taxes on cigarettes because we want everyone to stop smoking.
They're being rougher on vapers than they are on cigarettes. The whole thing about how the reason they were taxing cigarettes is they're trying to get kids to stop is just a lie. They want the money. First they tried to tax you. If you shifted to vaping, now they're trying to ban vaping and keep you smoking. And vapers, unlike cigarette smokers, they are very proud that they've made this switch in their lifestyle. They're healthier now, and some jerk has decided to interfere with that.
I'm curious: What kind of regulation of vaping do you think would be appropriate, if any?
It's nicotine. People know what nicotine is. Nicotine's not some new thing, it's been around since forever. The alternative [to vaping], by the way, is not not having nicotine. It's smoking cigarettes and having smoke in your lungs, and nicotine.
If you wanted to say you have to be 18 or something [to vape], I suppose so. But all those regulations are in now, so I don't see any legitimate need for anything new. This has been going on for years, there are no problems, and all of a sudden people are trying to shut it down.
There was a similar effort against another product that helped, which is chewing tobacco. In Sweden, they had this big thing, 25 percent of Swedish smokers had quit, and they used chewing tobacco. They use the chewing tobacco that comes in packets, so you can chew tobacco without needing a spittoon. It gives you the nicotine but without the smoke in your lungs. Evidently, because it hangs around your mouth, that could raise problems with mouth cancer. I don't know how accurate that is, but maybe. The harm reduction is still significant. In Europe, they were promoting that and not trying to tax it and kill it; in the US, they were trying to tax it and kill it. It's a separate issue, but it's in the same zone. Something is less harmful than another thing that's perfectly legal and they say, "No, don't do the less harmful thing, go back and do the one we taxed."
It seems like the FDA doesn't think of vaping as harm reduction so much as an additional dangerous thing that's entering that public sphere.
I think that as people get more used to it, as 10 million vapers become 20 million vapers. I think the politicians that are screwing with them are making a big mistake. I think that it's perfectly in tune with my vision of the center-right "leave-us-alone coalition," where people simply wish to be left alone. Each one has a different reason.
Have you ever vaped yourself?
I have, yeah. I don't vape on any sort of regular basis, other than when I sort of hang around with other vapers. This is not personal for me—I'm also in favor of people's homeschooling rights, and I don't homeschool.
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