A well-known anti-vaping activist will join the Biden administration health team, although not in a position that will affect vaping or tobacco policy. The Biden transition announced yesterday that Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids board member Bechara Choucair will join the administration’s COVID-19 Response Team as Vaccinations Coordinator.
Dr. Choucair was trained as a family physician at the American University of Beirut. He was Chicago’s health commissioner from 2009 to 2014, serving under mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel. During his time with the Chicago Department of Public Health, Choucair advocated for policies that would regulate vaping products as tobacco and add vapor to the city’s public smoking ban.
He is currently a senior vice president and Chief Community Health Officer for Kaiser Permanente, the massive California-based integrated healthcare system. Choucair was previously a vice president at Trinity Health, based in Michigan. He has served on the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids board since 2018.
According to the Biden press release, Choucair’s assignment “will focus on making sure vaccines turn into vaccinations by coordinating the timely, safe, and equitable delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations for the U.S. population, in close partnership with relevant federal departments and agencies, as well as state and local authorities.”
While the vaccinations job has nothing to do with tobacco and nicotine policy, it puts Choucair inside the administration and in a position to move into other health policy areas after the initial coronavirus response is completed.
During his stint as Chicago health commissioner, Choucair was heavily involved in tobacco issues, including advocating for anti-vaping laws promoted by then-mayor Rahm Emanuel. In December 2013, Choucair wrote an op-ed in support of Emanuel’s proposed vaping restrictions. In it he said that with the proposed anti-vaping laws, “Mayor Emanuel is inspiring cities across the nation to take action to ensure that residents avoid preventable disease and live healthy and productive lives.” He also claimed vaping would become a gateway to smoking—something that has never happened.
“Like other gateway products Big Tobacco has masked to entice its next generation of smokers, e-cigarettes follow suit as its popularity with youth nationwide more than doubled from 2011 to 2012,” Choucair wrote. Of course, at the time the article was written the only “Big Tobacco” vaping product was Blu, which had been bought by Lorillard Tobacco a year earlier. Flavored vaping products were created and produced by small companies that had no connection to the tobacco industry.
During the political fight over the 2014 anti-vaping ordinances, the Chicago Department of Public Health launched a Twitter campaign promoting the laws using the hashtag #ecigtruths. When the health department’s tweets were met with an unwelcome response from vapers—including a call to action by CASAA—Choucair accused the opponents of being part of an astroturf operation.
The health commissioner was so bothered by vaping proponents fighting against his pet policies that he even co-authored an article in an academic journal—the first of many terrible “vaping Twitter” studies—that smeared ordinary vaping consumers as tools of some grand conspiracy (and betrayed a complete misunderstanding of how social media work).
“There is evidence that misinformation spreads easily on the Internet, especially in social media,” wrote Choucair and his co-authors. But the only misinformation in the Twitter thread had come from his own health department, which claimed in its tweets that “#ECigs come in cotton candy, bubble gum & gummy bear flavors – clearly meant for children,” and implied without evidence that vaping products contain dangerous levels of various metals and chemicals.
Following Choucair’s departure from the health department later in 2014, the city ran an even more bizarre anti-vaping media campaign, and imposed harsher restrictions on vaping, including taxes and—after multiple tries—a flavor ban earlier this year.