Love the Smokers in Your Life: Don’t Restrict E-Cigarettes
In today’s COVID-19 era, Americans are rightly concerned about lung health, because the disease directly attacks the lungs and hurts those with lung-related illnesses. This dynamic may lead some to think current laws that heavily restrict e-cigarettes are good, since e-cigarettes also affect the lungs. But such credit would be profoundly misplaced.
A recent report from the American Consumer Institute (ACI) shows that e-cigarette regulations fail to account for their benefits while overemphasizing their harms. Americans would do well to look at the science behind e-cigarettes, and lawmakers should embrace them as an effective tool to help people stop smoking and save lives.
According to the ACI, scientific studies maintain e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than other tobacco products. That’s because e-cigarettes do not combust tobacco, nor do they “produce the dangerous tars and disease-causing gasses associated with regular cigarettes.” The ACI also states that the doses of toxins in e-cigarettes are “typically hundreds or thousands of times lower than in regular cigarettes.”
Unfortunately, public health officials and politicians have not helped the public better understand e-cigarettes. Instead, as the ACI report shows, they often purvey partial truths, while leaving out important context. Often, these officials fail to distinguish between e-cigarettes and tobacco products.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Department of Health tweeted: “E-cigarettes, e-cigs, e-hookahs, mods, vape pens or vapes—whatever you call them, they are NOT safer than other tobacco products.” And the ACI cites a blog post from the advocacy group the American Lung Association (ALA) that suggested e-cigarettes were no different than combustible cigarettes in terms of harming airway function. The latter statement from the ALA conceals the fact that e-cigarettes are much less harmful than tobacco. Put another way, it’s like saying both cats and tigers can scratch without further context.
It’s no wonder, then, that the public is so confused. In 2017, the Health Information National Trends Surveys (HINTS) survey found that more than half of American adults think e-cigs are equally as harmful as regular cigarettes. In addition, it found that almost 10 percent believed they were more harmful. HINTS and the ACI both point out that the percent of Americans who held this view steadily rose from 2012 to 2017.
This disparity between the truth and public perception is disheartening, since many people may be missing an opportunity to improve their health by switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes. The ACI points to one 2019 study from the United Kingdom that found e-cigarettes were twice as effective in helping people quit smoking than traditional nicotine replacements. In the U.S., one public health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that in 2016, there were 2.6 million former smokers who now vaped.
Despite the promise of e-cigarettes to help people quit smoking, false public perceptions have led to regulations that don’t solve the problem. One example is the way lawmakers have sought to restrict e-liquid flavors. Their concern is that the flavors would entice teenagers to start using e-cigarettes. However, one 2015 survey by the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco found that, not only did teenagers express a rather low interest in e-cigs, but also that an abundance of flavor options had, in fact, no effect on their interest.
The ACI report addresses another major concern among parents: the effect of e-cigarettes on teenagers. Many people worry that e-cigarettes might serve as a gateway for teenagers who wouldn’t otherwise smoke. However, research shows this isn’t the case. The ACI cites a paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and says that the paper found “non-smoking high school students are highly unlikely to use e-cigarettes; only six percent of 12th graders who had never smoked had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, and less than one percent used e-cigarettes regularly.” So, if your child doesn’t smoke in the first place, the odds of them starting to use e-cigarettes are low.
It seems like public health has never received more attention than today—and with good reason. The global pandemic has completely changed Americans’ way of life. But lawmakers and public health officials should also rationally consider whether laws do more harm than good. I have friends who vape, and I would love for them to stop, because while certainly safer than smoking, it’s not a healthy or harmless habit. But if lawmakers make it too difficult to access e-cigarettes, I worry my friends may turn to significantly more harmful tobacco products. Lawmakers should peel back such restrictions, which may have already kept Americans in harm’s way.