- - Thursday, September 19, 2019

Last week, President Trump announced a prospective federal ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes during a White House press conference. This sweeping, nationwide prohibition on an entire category of products would come on the heels of actions already taken by several states and municipalities.

Michigan, New York and San Francisco have already implemented temporary bans on flavored vapes. Only a few years old, the infant e-cigarette industry may already be facing its day of reckoning. But government busybodies should beware. 

There are certainly legitimate concerns to be taken into account about vaping, but overreacting to the current so-called “crisis” could only make the situation worse — driving former smokers of traditional cigarettes back to their old habits and growing the dangerous black market.

The primary motivation for the federal ban is reversing the recent uptick of underage vapers. As Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement last week, the Trump administration “will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.”

It’s important to put the prevalence of vaping among young people in contrast to other substances. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.8 percent of high schoolers in 2018 reported to having used an e-cigarette over the past 30 days. One-in-five is certainly concerning, but the numbers suggest that vaping is not as prevalent as underage drinking and marijuana usage. According to the University of Michigan survey, 30.2 percent of 12th graders reported drinking alcohol and 22.2 percent to smoking marijuana over the past 30 days in 2018.

Moreover, the prevalence of vaping today is not nearly as bad as that of cigarettes at its peak. In 1997, a whopping 36.5 percent of 12th graders reported to have smoked over the past 30 days. Today, that number is just 7.6 percent. What caused such a drastic drop? School educational programs, public service announcements and smoke-free workplaces discouraged the social acceptance of cigarettes. The same could be done for vaping, containing the problem without resorting to government force that infringes on individual choice.

It’s not clear whether e-cigarettes have served as a gateway drug, or, as Mr. Azar described it, an “on-ramp” to nicotine addiction. But there’s widespread agreement that vaping has been an off-ramp for many habitual cigarette smokers. 

In February of this year, The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a randomized control trial — known as the “gold standard” of scientific evidence — that showed e-cigarettes to be nearly twice as effective at helping smokers quit than other cessation products like patches, gum or oral nicotine. Two other gold-standard studies in 2013 found similar results.

The power of vaping to help smokers quit cigarettes is not just seen in the laboratory but also in real life. A quick search query on Twitter, for example, yields dozens of testimonies from former smokers about how vaping helped them quit. A federal ban could therefore drive former smokers back to their old ways, shortening the lifespan of countless Americans.

Prohibitionists point to recent reports of a vaping-related illness as a cause for a federal ban, with 380 cases and seven possible deaths. But Reason senior editor Jacob Sullum points out, “in the vast majority of [these] cases, the patients had vaped black-market cannabis products.”

Even former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, an ardent critic of e-cigarettes, recognized on Twitter that “the severe cases, so far, appear to be symptoms that can occur when either oils or lipid-containing substances enter lungs.” His conclusion: “This points to illegal products that are being cut with dangerous chemicals as a culprit.”

There’s no doubt that the vaping-related illness warrants a thorough investigation. But a pre-emptive ban would likely be ineffective, given that it would only apply to legally-sold vapes instead of the black-market products that seem to be the real source. Worse, it could increase the number of vapers affected by the illness by driving them to get their fix from the black market.

It’s important to remember how much progress has been made to curb the addictive effects of nicotine over the ages. Smoke was once prevalent in both public and private spaces within living memory for most Americans, and now we live in a relatively smokeless world. A federal ban of flavored e-cigarettes threatens this progress while helping the black market flourish. For sanity’s sake, the Trump administration should extinguish this bad idea altogether.

• Casey Given is the executive director of Young Voices. You can find him on Twitter at @caseyjgiven.

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