Well-intentioned as it may have been, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent crackdown on retail sales of the popular JUUL vapor device to minors is a misguided strategy that will likely do more harm than good in the quest to reduce the incidence of smoking-related illness and death.
Recent studies and statements from the American Cancer Society and the National Academies of Sciences state that e-cigarettes and vapor products are less harmful than traditional, combustible tobacco products. Yet, state and local public health entities continue to deride these products as gateways to higher smoking rates among minors and young adults. While the war against vapor products continues to be waged in the court of public opinion, a closer look at the facts reveals that it’s a game of smoke and mirrors.
Despite all of the recent negative attention given to e-cigarettes, Public Health England estimates that electronic cigarettes are no less than 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes. In fact, both Public Health England and the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General report that e-cigarettes have a risk profile similar to other nicotine replacement products, such as the patch and nicotine gum. For cigarette smokers, e-cigarettes and other vapor products often provide paths away from combustible cigarettes – as well as the certainty of smoking-related illness associated with their long-term use.
Critics claim that e-cigarettes are cleverly designed with bold flavor offerings aimed at enticing youth to use the product. Yet e-cigarettes are subject to the very same age restrictions that combustibles are. Some companies have even raised the minimum age to purchase e-cigarettes above 18 years of age in order to promote them as a harm-reduction product – not as a product meant to hook kids. On the other hand, the most harmful and widely-used tobacco products (combustible cigarettes) can still be purchased by 18-year-olds across most of the country.
Though recent science clearly states that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to cigarettes and other combustible tobacco products, they continue to be branded as Big Tobacco’s newest scheme to hook young people on nicotine. The truth of the matter is that conventional cessation products like pills, patches, and gum are not a panacea. Rather than discounting e-cigarettes as the devil in disguise, public health officials should more readily recognize the potential of e-cigarettes, in all variations, as a crucial tool to help move more people away from combustible tobacco products.
Nicolas John is the Northeast Region Manager at R Street Institute.