Vaping is as harmful as cigarette smoking. We face a youth vaping “epidemic.” E-cigarette flavors entice adolescents but provide minimal cessation benefits to adult smokers. As many people are initiated to smoking by e-cigarettes as those who successfully quit with their help.
In a recent webinar hosted by Krisztina Pusok, the American Consumer Institute’s Director of Policy and Research, these erroneous claims were debunked by Michelle Minton, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Minton highlighted the hundreds of medical studies showing that e-cigarettes, while not harmless, represent a vastly smaller (at least 95 percent smaller, according to a leading disease prevention agency in the U.K.) health risk than combustible cigarettes. Despite claims to the contrary, it is clear that smokers who switch to e-cigarettes are doing themselves a favor. Researchers have estimated that replacing combustible cigarettes with vaping products could prevent up to 6.6 million premature deaths in the U.S. alone.
The federal government’s own figures indicate that e-cigarettes have done a lot of good in helping smokers quit. In 2016, 2.6 million former smokers used e-cigarettes, bolstering experimental studies that suggest vaping may be twice as effective as conventional cessation aids. Moreover, current smoking rates in the U.S. are near record lows for both teens and adults, a decline that coincides with the rising popularity of e-cigarettes.
Nor is a youth vaping epidemic sweeping the nation. The numbers often cited by anti-vaping campaigners don’t tell the whole story. The CDC’s 2019 data shows that about 10 percent of middle-schoolers and 28 percent of high-schoolers reported using e-cigarettes at least once in the past 30 days; these figures are many times higher than in 2011, when record-keeping began. However, only a small percentage of these young people use e-cigarettes in a habitual and potentially harmful way — and many of those may have used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, an outcome public health officials should applaud.
Unfortunately, the federal government’s dire — and highly misleading — warnings about a youth epidemic seem to have had the opposite effect. A new report by Minton suggests that the frenzied response of the public health establishment has elevated vaping’s profile as an outlet for adolescent rebellion and communicated to teens that the practice is widespread among their peers, thereby normalizing e-cigarette use.
The federal government’s selective reading of youth vaping statistics has led to other blunders. The FDA has moved to limit access to e-liquid flavors, for example, while refusing to acknowledge that the policy will likely undermine smoking cessation efforts. A survey of young adults who use both e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes indicated that bans on e-liquid flavors would lead to reductions in e-cigarette use and simultaneous increases in combustible cigarette use. Another study found that while the availability of different flavors had no impact on non-smoking teens’ interest in e-cigarettes, the interest in e-cigarettes among adult
smokers was affected by the availability of different flavors. Therefore, sweeping measures to reduce consumers’ access to e-liquid flavors may impose high costs on adult smokers and deliver few benefits to non-smoking teens.
Minton also dispelled the myth that the spate of hospitalizations linked to vaping in the U.S. in 2019 were likely caused by commercially-available e-cigarette products. In the vast majority of cases, patients reported having vaped tainted THC oil, often obtained on the black-market. Cracking down on commercial e-cigarette operations, as some jurisdictions did in response to the outbreak, only drives up demand in unregulated markets and exposes the public to unnecessary risks.
Alarmism and knee-jerk opposition to e-cigarettes has misled the public and undermined confidence in our public health institutions. Policymakers have a responsibility to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of their actions, and to base their decisions on the facts.