SACRAMENTO — The 2005 dark comedy Thank You for Smoking tracks the efforts of three lobbyists known as the MOD Squad (Merchants of Death) who shill for the tobacco, alcohol, and gun industries. The lead character, an endearing but cynical tobacco lobbyist named Nick Naylor, tries to convince movie producers to feature cigarette-puffing stars to help his paymasters sell cigarettes. It’s an entertaining story — and one that reinforces common images of amoral people pushing dangerous but profitable products.

Smoking is terribly dangerous, a habit that is likely to shave 10 years off one’s life and lead to debilitating diseases. Backed by unassailable health data, the anti-smoking movement has helped lead a remarkable decline in smoking. In the United States, nationwide adult smoking rates have fallen from 42 percent in 1965 to less than 11.5 percent today. Youth smoking has dropped from 36 percent in 1997 to 1.9 percent today. That’s a major public-health triumph.

But as often is the case with political movements, the anti-smoking movement has become its own worst enemy as it has shifted the goalpost from “a world without tobacco” to a “world without nicotine.” It’s not just a matter of diminishing returns. It’s a case of zealotry trumping public health. I’m referring to increasingly successful efforts to ban lower-risk nicotine products such as vaping and oral nicotine pouches. California voters, for instance, in 2022 upheld a law that bans flavored-tobacco products, including far-less-dangerous options (as well as dangerous ones such as menthol cigarettes).

It’s often repeated among those of us who believe that people should have access to lower-risk products, but the following conclusion from Britain’s top public-health agency is significant:

While vaping may not be 100% safe, most of the chemicals causing smoking-related disease are absent and the chemicals which are present pose limited danger. It has been previously estimated that EC (electronic cigarettes) are around 95% safer than smoking. This appears to remain a reasonable estimate.

In other words, it’s better for people to use less-dangerous (but still not entirely “safe”) nicotine-delivery devices than more-dangerous ones. Many people who use addictive substances will not choose abstinence, so helping them reduce 95 percent of their risk seems a worthy public-health goal. Those numbers haven’t convinced health officials, politicians, or voters, so California and some other states — and the feds, under the Biden administration — continue their abstinence-oriented approach. Zero is the only acceptable number.

Health officials often accuse supporters of tobacco harm reduction — i.e., promoting the use of lower-risk products — of being tools of Big Tobacco. I’ve discussed the topic with politicians and activists, and they have no reasonable rebuttal to the argument that banning lower-risk products will only increase the use of deadly combustible cigarettes. In their view, zero use is the only option when it comes to tobacco (although not necessarily with other unhealthy products and behaviors).

Yet the latest data shows that the vape-banners are the ones most effectively promoting cigarette sales. Flavor bans have been around long enough now to study their effects. A recent study from Yale University, which is funded through the federal National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, confirms the harm-reduction point.

The Yale Daily News summarized the study, which:

analyzed retail sales from 2018 to 2023 and found that restricting flavored e-cigarettes increased conventional cigarette sales. As research has shown that traditional cigarettes are more dangerous than electronic cigarettes, current regulations against flavored electronic cigarettes may pose a public health threat … The research also notes that traditional cigarette sales have increased disproportionately for brands most often used by underage youth.

This confirms findings from a 2021 report finding that San Francisco’s flavored-tobacco ban “was associated with increased smoking among high school students under the age of 18 relative to other school districts.” A 2022 study published in ScienceDirect likewise found that Massachusetts’ ban on e-cigarettes led to a 7.5 percent increase in cigarette sales.

Reason magazine this month explained that Brazil has taken a particularly tough stance in enforcing its nationwide flavor ban with a military and police crackdown on black markets. The result: “Brazil now has one of the largest cigarette markets in the world.”

A new study published in Tobacco Control tracked consumer behavior after California’s flavor ban was upheld and, according to a report from Fox 5 News, “researchers found that queries for online retailers of tobacco products were about 194% higher than anticipated levels for cigarettes and 162% higher for vape products.” Of course, health activists’ initial response was to call for more regulations to limit online sales to Californians. It is perhaps unsurprising that roughly 50 percent of all consumed cigarettes in California are from illicit sources.

But the harder the state makes it to secure lower-risk products, the more people will buy higher-risk ones. Every tobacco-related product sold in this state includes a warning that nicotine is an addictive substance. People who are addicted to substances tend to find ways to satisfy their addictions. How does it make sense to ban the least-dangerous nicotine products while still ensuring access to the most-dangerous products? The main health problem doesn’t stem from nicotine, by the way, as it is a relatively benign stimulant, but from the chemicals inhaled by smoking tobacco.

Public health officials point to a crisis in teen vaping to justify their flavor bans, but data from the federal Centers for Disease Control’s National Youth Tobacco Survey found that current youth use of e-cigarettes has plummeted from 28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers in 2019 to 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively, now. The flavor bans are only recently taking hold, so this cannot be explained by recent prohibitionist policies but is more likely the result of age-21 purchase laws.

Overall youth tobacco use is falling, also, which is undoubtedly good news. Yet the evidence provides reason for concern. It shows that banning access to safer nicotine products will boost the use of more dangerous tobacco ones. That’s a result that even the most cynical tobacco lobbyist might not have envisioned, although a remake of that movie might have Nick Naylor thanking anti-tobacco forces for selling more cigarettes.