Across the United States, the war against electronic cigarettes continues amidst ongoing concerns about a so-called “teenage vaping epidemic.” The FDA just flagged a ban on pleasant flavors for vaping products sold at retail stores in the wake of a crackdown which made special note of five popular vaping brands — Juul, Vuse, MarkTen, blu e-cigs, and Logic. Elsewhere in the country, the state of Florida recently passed a ban on indoor vaping. Such moves are misguided, and actually threaten the health of tobacco smokers — by making safer alternatives less appealing and harder to access.
Anti-vaping bureaucrats often cite a recent University of Southern California study advancing an alleged correlation between teenage vaping and smoking, based on the tendency of teens to experiment with both. But this study flies in the face of free-falling teen smoking rates across the U.S., and demonstrates the junk science underpinning the anti-vape agenda.
While vapes, like any other products, should be subject to risk-proportionate regulations, a reactionary response to teens experimenting with the technology is misguided.
Nicotine vaping is proven to be at least 95 percent less harmful than tobacco smoking, and is actively recommended by international public health authorities like the U.K.-based Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England as a tool for adult cigarette smokers trying to quit. For decades, experts have noted that smokers “smoke for the nicotine, but die from the tar” produced when tobacco combusts in a cigarette. This makes alternative combustion and tar-free nicotine products like vapes, patches and gums desirable and healthier choices for those who cannot quit smoking cold turkey. Additionally, unlike cigarette smoke, second-hand vapor also carries no material health risks.
As vaping has gained popularity, tobacco smoking rates among adolescents have fallen sharply and reached all-time lows. Teenage vaping rates rose from 1.5 percent to 16 percent between 2011 and 2015 as the new technology hit the market. The same period saw a steep decline in adolescent smoking rates, which fell from 15.8 percent to a record low of 9.2 percent. These findings suggest that adolescents who experiment with vapes might otherwise have taken up the much more harmful habit of smoking. Even experimentation with vapes declined to 11.3 percent in 2016 from 16 percent in 2015. So if anything, vaping provides a “gateway” away from smoking.
Vaping just simply isn’t the boogeyman opponents make it out to be. The great majority of adolescent vapers do not tend to use nicotine at all, with just 20 percent of American teen vapers and 28 percent of Canadian teen vapers using solutions loaded with the addictive stimulant. Even then, the use of nicotine in this form does not carry nearly the same health risks as tobacco cigarettes.
Tobacco addiction specialist Dr. Colin Mendelsohn notes that assuming that vaping leads teens to smoking just because teens who smoke or vape are also more likely than average to have tried both, is a misinterpretation of data given the teenage tendency to experiment, especially with taboo habits. It’s natural that teenagers are more likely to have tried both at some point if they have tried one, but that doesn’t mean vaping is a gateway habit.
Concerns over experimental teenage vaping use are also likely overblown, as the health risks of both smoking and nicotine vaping depend upon the frequency of use and extent of exposure to smoke or nicotine vapor. So while many studies classify individuals as “smokers” or “vapers” based on rare, infrequent or even one-time experimental use, in practice that use has little to no impact on health.
Concerns about teenage vaping also ignore the reality that many teens, like adult vapers, use these products to help them quit smoking. Studies have shown that banning vape sales to minors causes a significant increase in adolescent smoking. Even teens who continue to smoke alongside vaping see better health outcomes than if they only got their nicotine from cigarettes.
The crackdown on popular flavors for vape liquids is also misguided. The pleasant taste is one of the reasons for vaping’s effectiveness as smoking cessation aid, so flavoring restrictions make these products less appealing to teens and adult smokers trying to improve their health by quitting tobacco.
The reality is that legitimate concerns about teens accessing nicotine vapes rise from a failure to enforce existing laws, rather than lax regulations. The FDA has noted the issue of “straw purchases” whereby adults buy vaping products from legitimate retailers which are then sold to minors. But strangely, the far more prevalent issue of adults purchasing alcohol for their underaged friends has never produced the same kind of reactionary moral panic that vaping has.
Tobacco stocks rallied in the wake of the FDA announcing their crackdown on the vaping industry. Given the fact that 480,000 Americans die a year from smoking-related illness — including 41,000 due to second-hand smoke alone — this rise in cigarette company stocks should give the FDA pause.
Anti-vaping policy is both anti-public health and anti-tobacco control. A measured, evidence-based approach which prioritizes the technology’s ability to add years to smokers’ lives by getting them off tobacco, while enforcing sensible and proportionate restrictions on teenage vaping, is the only right answer. Unfortunately, the loudest voice on the issue seems to be the emotional wailing of Helen Lovejoy from The Simpsons: “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”
Satyajeet Marar is the director of policy at Legalise Vaping, an offshoot of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, a 75,000+ member national grassroots advocacy group representing Australia’s taxpayers. He is also a Young Voices contributor.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.