Restrictions on e-cigarettes seem like a reasonable response to a growing problem, but they can fuel black markets and turn people to traditional tobacco products. Liam Glen writes on the unintended consequences of vaping bans.
E-cigarettes have brought tobacco back into the mainstream. The vapor-producing nicotine products were originally seen as a tool to help people stop smoking. Instead, they have attracted a new generation of users.
In the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, one in five high school students reported vaping at least once in the last thirty days. The number was one in twenty for middle schoolers. The popularity of e-cigarette use among children is not helped by the development of flavors imitating products like Gummi Bears and Froot Loops.
Researchers are still unsure of the safety of e-cigarettes. They contain a heavy concentration of nicotine, which makes them addictive and can impair brain development in children and young adults. They have also been found to contain multiple toxins and carcinogens, though they are still seen as safer than traditional tobacco products.
As their use grows, however, so does fear of adverse effects. After six vaping-related lung disease deaths, President Donald Trump announced plans to ban all e-cigarette flavors besides the default tobacco. Other officials, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, are making similar moves.
This may seem like an appropriate response to a growing public health epidemic. But closer inspection reveals a clear possibility for unintended side effects.
The recent outbreak of lung disease has been linked to black market, THC-containing e-cigarettes. The deaths are also disproportionally among elderly and middle-aged patients. Legal flavors marketed towards children are an unrelated problem.
Of course, they are still a problem. Along with their role in attracting new users, there is evidence that the addition of flavors causes potentially dangerous chemical reactions. The idea of a ban has been circulating for years.
The hope is that teenagers who otherwise would have become addicted to e-cigarettes will now avoid them. Meanwhile, those who are already users will either quit or make a smooth transition to tobacco-flavored vapes.
Under the right circumstances, these restrictions can be effective. Youth vaping is lower in places where e-cigarettes are more difficult to obtain.
Now, however, there is a preexisting population of users who may not find it easy to quit. Opponents of a ban fear that a black market for homemade e-cigarette flavors could open up. As the recent lung disease outbreak demonstrates, these would come with far greater dangers than legal products.
Vaping – and vaping regulations – is such a recent phenomenon that there is no clear plan of action. Some of these bans and restrictions may be effective. Others may turn people to defective street e-cigarettes or to traditional tobacco products.
But that does not mean that we should give up entirely. Reducing vaping is still a public health priority. Hasty prohibitions tend to have unintended consequences, but we must still keep an eye out for regulations that manage to restrict access without promoting illicit products.
And we must restrict demand along with supply. When the US government decided to start its campaign against smoking, it was clear that a ban on tobacco products would be hopeless. Instead, the focus has been creating a culture where smoking is no longer acceptable.
Some tactics are more effective than others, but there is no question that mass media campaigns, allied with resources to help addicts quit, have contributed to the drop in tobacco usage.
The FDA has been running an anti-vaping campaign since 2014, but it is still in relatively early stages. As the lawmakers across the US look to crack down on vaping, they must look at what has been effective against other addictive products.
Some restrictions will doubtlessly be necessary, but the bulk of the effort should try to ensure that teenagers never want to pick up an e-cigarette in the first place.