On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced its intention to ban all nontobacco flavored e-cigarette vapes from the market. The impetus for the news, which came directly from the Oval Office, was the release of preliminary data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey showing that more than 1 in 4 high school students had used an e-cigarette (“vaped”) within the past month in 2019, with most using flavored products.
The rationale is understandable: preventing the sale of vaping liquid with fruit and candy flavors is aimed at dissuading teens from vaping. The problem is that limiting the appeal of vaping will also affect adult smokers, the very group for whom e-cigarettes are intended.
The considerable health benefits of vaping by adults who cannot or will not quit smoking is largely accepted by the medical community. (In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service explicitly encourages smokers to use e-cigarettes.) While not safe, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine without burning tobacco, which releases the carcinogenic tar and other harmful products. Consequently, vaping is substantially less harmful than smoking conventional, tobacco-combusting cigarettes.
Adult smokers will be left in the lurch
Removing flavors is bad for adult smokers. There is little question that some adults will switch back to their Marlboros and Kools if their preferred flavors are no longer available. Surveys of adult smokers show the vast attraction of switching from cigarettes to a vaping device that uses nontobacco flavor.
As for youths, everyone agrees they should not vape. However, one of the biggest concerns — namely, that teen vaping leads to teen smoking through a so-called gateway effect — is greatly overstated.
USA TODAY Editorial Board:Unregulated vaping spawns new teenage nicotine addicts. And now adult vapers are dying.
Meticulous data analyses show that vaping is more of a “gateway” out of a smoking addiction for teens than it is a passage into a new habit for those who have never smoked. Support for this observation comes from the fact that teen smoking remains on a decades-long downhill slide.
Even if vaping is not a conduit to smoking, teen vaping is going in the wrong direction: Between 2018 and 2019 it rose by a third, from 20.8% to 27.5%. (At least, however, the trend may be slowing as the increase from 2017 to 2018 was steeper at 78%, from 11.7 to 20.8%).
In response, Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a news release that if there is further “migration to tobacco-flavored products by kids, we will take additional steps to address youth use of these products.”
Additional steps? Much is being done already. Federal regulations already prohibit the sale of vaping products to minors, and the FDA conducts retail inspections, education for teens and more. Juul, the company whose sleek device is popular with teens, no longer sells “flavor pods” in retail stores and is spending $30 million on sophisticated youth purchase prevention program for both the internet and retail stores.
Even so, it’s possible that there may still be a another, albeit smaller, bump in teen vaping from 2019 to 2020. Will this then trigger the “additional step” of a complete ban on vaping products? Such a threat was made last year by the FDA in the face of the teen vaping problem.
What’s more, the tobacco flavored e-cigarettes can only stay on the market subject to companies’ filing for approval from the FDA. The filing, due in spring of 2020, poses its own hurdle insofar as FDA approval, as promulgated, sets a standard for federal approval that is vague and thus difficult to meet.
Don't drive Americans back into the arms of cigarettes
Without question, abolition of e-cigarettes would be a health disaster for the roughly 10.8 million adults who vape. Vaping is more popular as a method of quitting smoking than nicotine patches or gum. U.S. adult smoking is at 14%, the lowest level ever recorded.
If vaping disappears, many smokers would go back to cigarettes, which remain legal. For anti-smoking advocates who have long battled Big Tobacco, endorsement of the flavor ban and a subsequent all-out ban (were it to occur), would only strengthen the cigarette industry.
Other former vapers would likely patronize a black market in vaping products, which is sure to emerge. Black markets, of course, are breeding grounds for the worst manufacturing practices such as tainted nicotine liquids, defective batteries and heating coils.
HHS, FDA, CDC:Vaping oversight is a top concern
What to do? The FDA should not ban mint or menthol flavor vaping. As long as the corner store carries Kools and Newports, such a move is a prescription for a relapse to smoking.
Next, take a breath and apply much needed perspective. Daily vaping by teens is very low. Absolutely, the government should restrict marketing to them. But the intense focus on teen use has diverted almost all attention from the importance of vaping for adult smokers, the ones who are dying from a terrible habit.
Dr. Sally Satel is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @slsatel
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Trump, banning nontobacco flavored vape products is unwise