Never before has a boon to public health been met with such hysteria and ingratitude.
Vaping is almost all upside in comparison with traditional smoking, a wanton destroyer of health and lives, and yet the nation is in the grips of a panic about e-cigarettes. In a rarity for the Trump era, the anti-vaping sentiment jumps traditional geographic and political bounds, running from the Oval Office to San Francisco, from President Donald Trump to his most fervent enemies.
Trump has announced a proposed Food and Drug Administration ban on flavored e-cigarettes, while the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned the sale of vaping products at retail outlets. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed a ban on flavored e-cigarettes on an “emergency” basis. “Vaping is dangerous, period,” Cuomo pronounced, citing, like the president, teenage use in particular.
Actually, there’s little evidence that vaping, as a general matter, is hazardous, especially when compared with traditional cigarettes, whose smokers inhale a witch’s brew of carcinogens and carbon monoxide. Smoking accounts for 30% of all cancer deaths, and 18% of all deaths.
A credible estimate is that e-cigarettes, which involve inhaling a nicotine-infused vapor rather than smoke, are about 95% less harmful than cigarettes.
The vaping-related illnesses that have recently garnered headlines and prompted the regulatory actions appear not to implicate standard vaping, but rather the use of black-market liquids containing THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. We could make the risky products involved illegal, if they weren’t already illegal.
The problem with the flavor bans is its effect on adult e-cigarette users. About 11 million adults vape, and some percentage of them are former smokers or would be smoking in the absence of e-cigarettes. A robust study in the United Kingdom found that vaping is twice as effective as other common nicotine replacements in getting smokers to quit. The flavors, according to surveys of users, are a big draw for smokers quitting traditional cigarettes. It’s manifestly absurd to ban vaping products and leave cigarettes, including flavored cigarettes, on the market.
Another source of the current panic is that teen vaping is way up, but there’s nothing to suggest that this increase in vaping is encouraging real teen smoking, which has fallen below 6%. Everyone would prefer that teens not develop a vaping habit, but this presents nothing close to the health issue presented by combustible cigarettes.
By all means, let’s crack down on retailers who are selling products to minors. But exaggerating the harms of vaping and prohibiting the products is a formula for giving back some of the gains against traditional smoking.
The U.K. has adopted a much more sensible approach that welcomes e-cigarettes as an important harm-reduction measure. A couple of National Health Service hospitals have even allowed vape shops on their premises.
That would cause a hue and cry in the United States, where we can’t agree on anything except, apparently, our irrational hostility to a product that is an alternative to a terrible scourge.