Politics & Policy

San Francisco’s Vaping Ban Threatens to Push Teens Back Toward Cigarettes

A woman smokes a Juul e-cigarette. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Virtue-signaling can have real-world consequences.

San Francisco, not known as a city particularly interested in fighting the drug war, has just passed legislation banning the sale of e-cigarettes to consumers of any age — while leaving real cigarettes alone. The city’s board of supervisors passed the bill last Tuesday, with advocates citing the rise of vaping among teenagers as their motivation. While the increase in e-cigarette usage among middle and high-schoolers is concerning, this ban will likely have limited effects on vaping rates among young people while victimizing those (including teenagers) already addicted to nicotine.

According to a 2018 CDC report, vaping and smoking have essentially switched places in usage among high schoolers. While the percentage of teenagers reporting that they had smoked in the past 30 days was down from 2011 (16 percent to 8 percent), the percentage reporting they had vaped was up significantly, to 21 percent from 2 percent. This steep increase is partly due to e-cigarettes’ novelty; vaping rates will probably not continue to rise so quickly.

In many ways, increased vaping is a welcome development. While there is uncertainty about exactly how harmful e-cigarettes are, the consensus is that they are dramatically less dangerous than cigarettes. They contain no tar or tobacco. Some e-cigarette products are, however, more addictive thanks to higher concentrations of nicotine, and more attractive to teenagers because of their flavoring and status as a fad.

This is where the board of supervisors comes in. Supervisor Shamann Walton, who co-sponsored the ban, portrayed e-cigarettes as a dangerous new technology when presenting the bill: “Now you have this device loaded with nicotine and chemicals that’s drawing people to addiction. We need to keep it out of the hands of young people.”

First, it seems like e-cigarettes are serving as more of a replacement for teen smoking than an entirely new and different draw; increases in vaping, as shown above, track decreases in smoking. However, 2018 levels of vaping have exceeded 2011 levels of smoking, most likely due to vaping’s relative safety and the faddish nature of e-cigarettes. Juul, the largest e-cigarette company, has slick, startup-style marketing and enjoys exploding popularity on college campuses.

The argument goes, then, that Juul serves as a “gateway drug” to more harmful ways of consuming nicotine, such as chewing tobacco and cigarettes. That’s unlikely, as smoking levels have dropped precipitously, and it is more reasonable to assume that those who vape would have been those who smoked a decade or so ago.

But the argument for prohibition makes even less sense if Juul serves as a gateway drug and gets kids hooked on nicotine. Much the way pain-pill addicts switched to heroin after the crackdown on prescription opioids, nicotine addicts will switch to cigarettes if safer alternatives aren’t available. If anything, a ban would have been better policy seven years ago, when cigarette usage was declining and vaping was still relatively uncommon.

As it stands today, more teenagers are using a safer nicotine product. Forcing them off it would be a gift to cigarette companies. And banning e-cigarettes ignores the majority of users who are not minors, many of whom use vaping as a way to quit smoking.

And of course, all of this doesn’t even begin to touch on the arguments San Francisco progressives rolled out to support marijuana legalization. It is entirely inconsistent to ban vaping but permit the sale of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. A ban is incredibly difficult to enforce, given the prevalence of lax smoke shops in nearby towns, fake IDs, and frankly, determined teenagers.

The ban is more aesthetic than anything else. San Franciscans generally don’t mind or have grown used to marijuana’s prevalence; cigarettes have been successfully regulated and shamed out of the public square. But e-cigarettes’ association with Big Tobacco (Altria bought a 35 percent share of Juul) makes them unacceptably “corporate” in the eyes of the board, unlike marijuana. Vaping is a blot on the city’s progressive self image, associated more with tech bros than with hippies.

But virtue-signaling can have real-world consequences. San Francisco’s ban is poorly considered, leaves smokers attempting to quit out in the cold, and threatens to reverse a decades long effort to get teenagers off of cigarettes.

James P. Sutton is an editorial intern at National Review and a junior at Swarthmore College.

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