There are those who say vaping is a public health menace, that it’s designed to appeal to young people as a gateway to tobacco with no redeeming social values whatsoever. Others who say it’s a public health miracle that’s made it possible for tens of thousands of people addicted to cigarettes to quit and live healthier lives.
It’s not clear who’s right but the evidence thus far hews toward the idea that vaping, from the standpoint of public health, is largely beneficial. There have been a few deaths among young people but, as we’re now finding out, those can be attributed to carelessness, black market formulas based in oil rather than water, and the effort to get a quick high by employing a THC-like additive. They did not result, as the proponents of regulation and abolition led us at first to believe, because all vaping technologies are medically and scientifically unsound.
Vaping is 95 percent safer than smoking, according to some estimates. Unlike inhaling cigarette smoke, vaping is not carcinogenetic and not, as some have claimed, a proven gateway to teen smoking. Yet it’s under attack as never before.
The hysteria over what’s been called “vaping-related lung illness” has generated enormous pressure on politicians from President Donald Trump on down to do something. That’s understandable but not necessarily right. The attack on the science showing that vaping generally leads to reductions in cigarette smoking and that favored vaping is very much a part of helping people quit is leading to a situation where even more people may die.
For more than a few years, the nascent vaping industry has tried to work with the government to set rules everyone can live with. They’re on board with an under-21 vaping ban, and the biggest player in the marketplace, Juul, has voluntarily agreed to withdraw its few flavored formulas from the U.S. market. No more mint, no more crème, no more cucumber, no more fruit and no more mango — even though studies have shown cigarette smokers find it easier to refrain from smoking if the vaping options available to them are flavored.
Juul mint was by far the most popular flavor amount young people, constituting 64 percent of youth e-cigarette use. Removing it from the market may do more to reduce underage vaping than any other action taken by the U.S. government to date. That will give the president the win he was looking for when he and first lady Melania Trump jumped into the debate with all four feet.
After all, he said it was about protecting our kids and that, along with the “under-21 ban” backed by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, may get him what he wants, He talked tough and industry listened. Now that the primary teenage-enticing flavor is going to be unavailable, Mr. Trump and Dr. Stephen Hahn —the chief medical officer of the world-renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas whom he’s nominated to be the next commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — should reconsider the proposed blanket ban on flavored vaping.
What’s been proposed is, as the man said, bad policy and bad politics. On the policy front, the e-cigarette is the most effective quit-smoking tool in history. Studies show most adults prefer flavors, meaning a blanket ban will probably do more harm than good in terms of public health.
Politically, a flavor ban hurts Mr. Trump’s bid for re-election. Mr. Trump won Michigan, a state with an estimated 423,000 vapers, by roughly 11,000 votes in 2016. Pennsylvania, which he won by 44,000 votes, has 457,000 vapers in the Keystone State. Polling commissioned by Americans for Tax Reform showed adult vapers to be a powerful bloc in a dozen swing states. E-cigarette users are almost always single-issue voters — to them its life or death, literally — and 4 of 5 said a politician’s position on banning, taxing or regulating vapor products would dictate their vote.
There are sensible policies that can deter youth use without harming adults who want to switch rather than quit. The president has hinted he might be coming around on many of them, like the “under-21 ban.” They also should remain inaccessible to customers without carefully placed precautions (staff assistance or lock and key) and be sold only where face-to-face age verification is possible.
Each of these measures, combined with Juul’s removal of youth-friendly mint from the marketplace, should put a stop to the youth vaping epidemic while leaving this medical technology miracle available for those who can’t quit cigarettes any other way. The vapers deserve a chance to prove they’ll work.
• Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom, and a former U.S. News & World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.