Hundreds of thousands of Americans are killed every year. Millions more left coping with lingering ailments. No segment of society is exempt from the crushing toll.
No, I’m not referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m talking about smoking. One in five deaths in the U.S. are attributable to tobacco — and for every person who dies from smoking, the CDC estimates that at least 30 other people live with a serious smoking-related illness.
Despite these sobering statistics, Michael Bloomberg, the business mogul and former three-term mayor of New York City, has devoted vast sums of money to combat one of the most effective ways of reducing tobacco-related harm – e-cigarettes and vaping.
Since 2019, Bloomberg has backed a $160 million campaign to urge states and local jurisdictions to pass restrictions on the sale and use of e-cigarettes. One of Bloomberg’s priorities is to ban flavored e-cigarettes, products he views as enticing teens to get hooked on nicotine. And he’s been successful; in the years since his initiative was launched, several states and major cities have prohibited the sale of flavored tobacco products.
Let’s be clear: e-cigarettes carry risks, but combustible cigarettes are far worse. Since e-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco, they don’t produce the dangerous tars and carcinogenic gasses associated with regular cigarettes. The doses of toxins contained in e-cigarettes are typically hundreds or thousands of times lower than in regular cigarettes. A review of the scientific evidence found that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking.
In fact, one of the most significant, albeit often overlooked, public health achievements of the last decade is the plunging rate of cigarette use among teens. The latest figures indicate that nearly 5 of every 100 high school students reported in 2020 that they smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days—a decrease from 16 in 100 high schoolers in 2011. That equates to millions of fewer young people smoking.
What’s behind this encouraging trend? Although many factors likely played a role, the rise of e-cigarettes has unmistakably contributed to steering young people away from the most dangerous tobacco products and toward safer alternatives. Moreover, the proportion of middle and high school students using any tobacco products – lumping e-cigarettes and cigarettes together – is trending downward.
Adult smokers have benefitted too. In 2016, an estimated 2.6 million e-cigarette users in the U.S. were former smokers. And experiments have suggested e-cigarettes are more effective smoking cessation aids than many current FDA-approved products like nicotine patches and gum.
Banning flavors might cause some people to abandon tobacco use altogether, but others will be driven back to the pack. A 2017 survey of thousands of smokers and recent quitters found that a ban on all flavored tobacco products would cause e-cigarette use to decline by 7.9 percent, combustible cigarette use to increase by 2.7 percent, and abstinence from tobacco products to increase by 5.2 percent. Another study revealed that a flavor ban would cause 17.1 percent of adult e-cigarette users to stop vaping and smoke instead.
It’s simple: when denied their first choice of flavored e-cigarettes, consumers – whether teens or adults – split between taking up smoking and kicking the habit entirely. If e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes were equivalent threats to health, the tradeoff might be defensible, but they’re not.
Bloomberg isn’t just pushing the wrong policies, his messaging to the public perpetuates the falsehood that e-cigarettes are as harmful or perhaps more harmful as regular cigarettes. “E-cigarette companies have promoted unsubstantiated health claims about their products as healthier than traditional cigarettes, when, in fact, e-cigarettes are uniquely dangerous for kids…,” Bloomberg Philanthropies states on its website. It is any wonder that 10% of Americans incorrectly believe vaping is more dangerous than smoking?
The stakes are too high to ignore. Research led by oncologists at Georgetown University found that if current trends continue, the transition from combustible tobacco products to e-cigarettes will result in “1.8 million premature smoking- and vaping-attributable deaths avoided and 38.9 million life-years gained between 2013 and 2060.” To put that perspective, it is estimated that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the loss of 20.5 million years of life across 81 major countries in 2020. Over a half-century, e-cigarettes may save nearly twice as many life years as we lost in the first year of the pandemic.
Bloomberg should heed the scientists trying to redirect his enormous philanthropic resources in more productive ways. For now, he’s doing more harm than good.