It sounds so well-intentioned: Preventing “harm” to consumers by erring on the side of scientific “doubt.” But the practical effect of the so-called “precautionary” principle is often just the opposite: denying consumers ready access to demonstrably beneficial goods and services.
A good example is the rapidly expanding “vaping” industry. Billed as a safer and cleaner alternative to tobacco, vaping features an odorless and colorless liquid heated with a battery-powered unit to produce an aerosol mist that the “vaper” inhales and exhales in a pattern that resembles cigarette smoking. Currently, there are some 10 million or more vaping consumers in the United States alone — about 43 percent of the global total. But the market is about to explode.
Supporters say vaping can help wean hard-core tobacco smokers off of cigarettes, much like methadone helps heroin addicts kick their drug habit. And the public health benefits are undeniable: Since vaping does not burn tobacco, it produces no tar residue, the toxin that causes emphysema and lung cancer. Without tar, the demonstrated link between smoking and fatal disease disappears.
But that hasn’t kept anti-vapers from pressing their case anyway. Instead of focusing on tobacco, they’ve pointed to the nicotine contained in some vaping liquids, especially in products like the “Juul” pen, which is sweeping across college campuses and reaching down into high schools. Critics say that vaping is likely to turn a brand new generation of teenagers into nicotine fiends, leading them back to cigarettes, reversing the impressive gains made in reducing teen smoking in recent years.
It’s hysteria for the most part, the kind of moral panic liberals love to stoke to justify a crackdown which invariably places government regulators — the ultimate kill-joys — in control of national policy.
There are a lot of misconceptions about vaping and nicotine. In many vaping devices, it can fluctuate, from low to high. But many and perhaps most vaping liquids contain no nicotine at all. Especially for first-time smokers, imbibing nicotine is not vaping’s primary appeal. These consumers are akin to those who once favored clove cigarettes over traditional cigarettes. They’re looking from the outset for an alternative to tobacco, less harsh in taste and less damaging to the lungs.
Anti-vapers know this and have begun targeting the vaping liquid’s sweet-tasting flavor additives — 12,000 varieties and counting — that young adults especially find so appealing. But there’s a problem here, too: The main ingredients in vaping liquid, vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol, are not toxic when ingested. What happens when these same ingredients are burned at high temperatures? No one knows, but that hasn’t stopped a bevy of recent studies from concluding, with the flimsiest of evidence, that trace metals found in these liquids are likely to increase the risk for cancer.
If you want to know what vaping really looks and feels like, don’t listen to regulators and their favorite anti-vaping scientists. Visit web sites like vapinginsider.com and vaporbeast.com that extol the virtues of the practice. There are several thousand boutique vaping shops nationwide that cater to all sorts of vaping connoisseurs, young and old, and none of them sell cigarettes. A growing number of vaping “conferences” bring together vaping aficionados nationwide to celebrate the latest technological advances in the field.
I have interviewed dozens of vapers individually about their smoking history and habits. One vaper from southern Virginia — let’s call her Joanne — has given up cigarette smoking almost completely because she finds vaping more fun and enjoyable, and cheaper, too. She used to smoke a pack a day of traditional cigarettes which cost her $40-$45 weekly. For a quarter of that price, she buys vaping liquid that lasts her a week-and-a-half. She says the nicotine that she ingests daily is far less than what she once consumed from a pack of cigarettes.
One hears constant hints that Big Tobacco is pushing vaping to get consumers hooked on cigarettes again, but most have opposed vaping from the start fearing its spread would further reduce their declining sales and profits from tobacco. Even the latest National Academy of Science report, one of the first to declare vaping “safer” than tobacco, felt compelled to suggest that vaping could get non-smokers “hooked” on tobacco again. It reminds you of the old discredited “gateway” argument against drugs: Let kids try pot and before long they’ll be snorting cocaine. In fact, this is pure conjecture masquerading as “science.”
Is the precautionary principle completely unwelcome? Of course not. We should be concerned if the spread of vaping were actually reversing the ongoing salutary decline in cigarette smoking among teens. But in a free society we do not start with the presumption of guilt and harm to stigmatize the pursuit of happiness. We trust consumers to apply their own common sense and good judgment until well-grounded science suggests otherwise, as it did in the case of tobacco smoking. We’re not there yet with vaping, not even close. And we shouldn’t let a thick cloud of ideological mist from nay-sayers deter the rights of individuals seeking to enjoy their lives as they see fit.
• Stewart Lawrence is a Washington writer.