There has been a burst of panicked news, competing claims, and unfounded fear related to “vaping,” the use of electronic devices to produce an inhaled vapor, usually containing nicotine, which has emerged as a common alternative to smoking.
As is commonly the case, the controversy surrounding vaping consists of a rat’s nest of discrete issues that need not necessarily be tangled up together. The mess currently includes: the Trump administration’s decision to prohibit certain flavors of vaping cartridges on the theory that they will attract underage users; a Wisconsin-based drug ring discovered illegally producing vaping cartridges containing THC, the principal psychoactive substance in marijuana; a rash of hospitalizations and a half-dozen deaths around the country linked to vaping, the great majority of which involved the illegal misuse of vaping devices. A final issue, constantly underappreciated amid the din, is that vaping does indeed provide a beneficial alternative to cigarettes and other combustible tobacco.
These issues are best addressed one at a time rather than lumped together into a single, unitary response to the current mass hysteria about vaping.
The Trump administration is wrong to prohibit particular flavors of vaping product as a means of preventing children from taking up the habit. The obvious parallel case is flavored tobacco; in spite of the great national panic over flavored “bidis,” hand-rolled cigarettes, a decade ago, U.S. smokers, including underage smokers, overwhelmingly used cigarettes and other conventional tobacco products; a 2006 study found that less than 3 percent of U.S. high-school students smoked bidis, and just over 1 percent of those 18 to 24 did. Overall cigarette smoking among young people has been tanking since the mid 1990s, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which found daily cigarette use rates of 3.6 percent for high-school seniors and half that or less for those younger. In 1996, one in ten eighth-graders reported daily cigarette smoking; today, that number is less than 1 percent.
The states and the federal government are perfectly capable of policing the sale of vaping products to underage consumers in exactly the same way they police the sales of tobacco and alcohol. (“E-cigarette” is a misnomer for products such as those sold by Juul, which — this is important to remember — contain no tobacco.) Shut down offending vape shops, yank business licenses, and put a couple of chain-store managers in jail if necessary. There is no good reason to prohibit products that are perfectly appropriate to adults simply because a few retailers mishandle them. Punish the guilty — leave everyone else alone.
The same goes for investigating and prosecuting those who manufacture and sell black-market vaping products. If these are indeed a significant public-health menace, then law enforcement and prosecutors have work to do — prohibiting or restricting the legal sale of sanctioned products is not an appropriate response to the illegal sale of illegal products. We don’t take Advil off the shelves because cocaine exists and is sold.
It is worth emphasizing that the current episode seems to be related almost exclusively to the use of illegal THC-based vaping cartridges. Used as intended, vaping is a literal lifesaver.
In the United Kingdom, medical authorities advise smokers to switch to vaping, because practically all of the available scientific evidence suggests that vaping is much, much safer. Nicotine consumption does come with health consequences, roughly comparable to those associated with caffeine. What makes smoking so bad for your health isn’t the nicotine — it’s all the other stuff in tobacco smoke, the products of combustion. The nicotine solution used in Juul products and others like them is water-based and requires no combustion at all — the vapor is nicotine-laced steam. The Royal College of Physicians found that vaping is no more than 5 percent as harmful to health as smoking; a 95-percent improvement would be, in any other major public-health issue, cause for celebration. But vaping looks too much like smoking for our professional busybodies.
(“Why don’t we do things like they do it in England?” the progressives are always saying when it comes to health-care — and here’s a chance.)
A couple of conclusions: One is that as a matter of tradeoffs, vaping is a clear winner over smoking. Another is that not all national policy needs to be organized around miscreant children. A third is that people enjoy a lot of things that have negative health consequences: nicotine, alcohol, sugar, salt, motorcycles, scuba diving, etc. — and, absent some much more compelling case than this, the nannies should mind their own business.