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Fact Check: Rahm Emanuel’s Spin Fueled Campaign Against E-Cigarettes

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched a vociferous campaign against e-cigarettes with the aim of flooding social media with the alleged dangers of vaping.

In conjunction with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH), the mayor’s public information and social media campaign promises to highlight “the highly addictive nature of nicotine” and the “toxic chemicals and poison found in e-liquids.”

The CDPH also claims that “vaping devices such as e-cigarettes being unregulated at the federal level.” Emanuel boasts that the initiative is part of the city’s tobacco control strategy, although e-cigarettes don not contain tobacco.

“From regulating e-cigarettes to banning the sale of flavored tobacco near our schools, we are committed to enacting every possible strategy to prevent youth from ever picking up smoking,” Emanuel said in a statement Wednesday.

He was joined by Dr. Robert A. Winn, Director of the University of Illinois Cancer Center, who claimed “widespread use of e-cigarettes is re-normalizing smoking in our society, which makes this a very pertinent public health issue.”

But the campaign has sparked a backlash from vapers and harm reduction advocates who contest the claims made by the campaign and by Winn.

Here are some of the most problematic claims made in Chicago’s latest offensive against vaping.

Teens who use e-cigarettes will get addicted to nicotine.

One of the most common arguments against e-cigarettes is that teens will become addicted to nicotine and then transfer to regular more dangerous cigarettes.

This hypothesis was recently dealt a serious blow by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). According to NIDA, more than 60 percent of 15- to 18-year-olds vaped just flavorings with zero nicotine last time they used an e-cigarette. Only 20 percent said they used e-cigarettes containing nicotine.

Vaping advocates have never concealed the fact that nicotine can be addictive, but because e-cigarettes contain nicotine and almost none of the chemicals responsible for smoking-related diseases, the devices offer a much safer and more satisfying way to quit smoking for many people.

In fact, an independent study from Public Health England concluded e-cigarettes were 95 percent safer than regular cigarettes. It should also be noted that Emanuel and the CDPH are not launching a campaign against gums or patches that are filled with nicotine.

Toxic chemicals and poison are found in e-liquids.

As for the “toxic chemicals and poison found in e-liquids,” it is true that e-cigarettes are not 100 percent safe, but the levels of potentially harmful chemicals found in e-cigarettes is extraordinarily low, especially compared to their tobacco-filled rivals.

Formaldehyde is one of the most often cited toxic chemicals that can be found in e-cigarette vapor. E-cigarettes can produce formaldehyde, but usually in incredibly small amounts that have little impact on people’s health.

E-cigarettes can produce higher levels of formaldehyde, but this usually comes from a misuse of the device where e-liquid is overheated. According to the prominent e-cigarette researcher Dr. Farsalinos, in a study published in Addiction:

Electronic cigarettes produce high levels of aldehyde only in dry puff conditions, in which the liquid overheats, causing a strong unpleasant taste that e-cigarette users detect and avoid. Under normal vaping conditions, aldehyde emissions are minimal, even in new-generation high-power e-cigarettes.

More recently, media outlets across the world exploded in a tirade of hyperbole after a Harvard Study identified diacetyl, a chemical linked to the severe respiratory commonly known as “popcorn lung,” as present in 39 of 51 flavored e-liquids tested.

But what most the media failed to put into context was that the level of daily diacetyl exposure from smoking is 750 times higher on average than exposure to diacetyl from vaping.

Not only is the risk of diacetyl exposure far lower for vapers than for smokers, but according to Critical Reviews in Toxicology, “smoking has not been shown to be a risk factor for bronchiolitis (popcorn lung).”

Commenting on the Chicago campaign against e-cigs, American Vaping Association President Gregory Conley said:

Multiple surveys have demonstrated that Americans’ perceptions of the risks of vaping keep getting worse with each passing year. Beyond being a waste of money, campaigns like Chicago’s are also dangerous because the misinformation will cause many smokers to continue to smoke rather than quit with a smoke-free product.

Thanks to the combination of this campaign and forthcoming sky high taxes in Chicago and Cook County, we’ll likely see smoking rates in Chicago stagnate or fall at a much slower rate than the rest of the country. Mayor Emanuel is leaving behind quite the legacy of shuttered businesses and dead smokers.

E-cigarettes are re-normalizing smoking.

Dr. Robert A. Winn claims e-cigarettes are “re-normalizing smoking,” but the data shows tobacco use continues to decline sharply, and e-cigarette use is increasing.

A Gallup poll released on December 10 showed cigarette smoking among young adults has plummeted by 12 percentage points to 22 percent in the past decade. The slump has been so pronounced that young people are now no more likely to smoke than those aged 30 to 64, a significant change since the early 2000s, according to Gallup.

The sharp fall in cigarette smoking has been accompanied by a significant rise in e-cigarette use, especially among young adults who are the most likely to vape out of all age groups.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in November said 5.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 4.7 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds were regular vapers. In total, 12.6 percent of Americans have tried an e-cigarette and 3.7 percent are consistent e-cigarette users.

The study followed data released in April showing regular smoking continuing to fall among high school students, while e-cigarette use was increasing, with 9.2 percent of students saying they smoked a cigarette in the last month — a fall of 3.5 percent since 2013. In the same time period, students who reported using e-cigarettes jumped from 4.5 percent to 13.4 percent.

E-cigarettes are unregulated.

E-cigarettes are subject to a host of regulations across different states, but are for the moment more lightly regulated at the federal level than cigarettes.

But what may have escaped the Emanuel’s attention is that regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) coming down the pipeline could wipe out 99 percent of the e-cigarette industry.

The FDA deems regulations will require all e-cigarette products released after February 15, 2007, to undergo the costly Pre-Market Tobacco Applications (PMTA) process. A PMTA for each individual product can run between $2 million and $10 million.

Since e-cigarettes are a relatively new innovation and the industry has grown so rapidly, the vast majority of vaping products would fall under the FDA’s proposed rule. Further, a major portion of the market consists of small, self-proprietary business. As a result, such an enormous tax burden could bankrupt 99 percent of the industry.

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