Staff Columnist

Republicans and Democrats fall victim to vapor madness

Efforts to restrict access to e-cigarettes may be counterproductive

Detective Timothy Koch of the Arlington County, Virginia, police department school resource unit displays a Juul device.
Detective Timothy Koch of the Arlington County, Virginia, police department school resource unit displays a Juul device. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson

Few things move so swiftly as politicians and bureaucrats who think they’ve uncovered a public health epidemic.

State and federal regulators are cracking down on electronic nicotine delivery systems, better known as e-cigarettes or vaporizers. Both Republicans and Democrats are advocating for regulations they hope will restrict young Americans’ access to e-cigarettes.

Senate File 66, a Republican bill, would increase the legal age to purchase vapor products to 21, but still allow 18-year-olds to buy traditional cigarettes. Senate File 417 and House File 329, sponsored by Democrats, increase taxes on vapor products to bring them in line with tobacco products.

At the federal level, Trump-appointed Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is preparing to release new federal rules that would effectively ban flavored e-cigarettes, which regulators worry are attractive to minors.

At best, the rush to restrict access to vaporizers is premature. At worst, it may be detrimental to public health.

E-cigarettes and vaporizers use small batteries to create a vapor mist containing nicotine. Contrary to popular belief, nicotine itself is not highly hazardous to human health. It is all the other stuff in cigarettes — much of which is not found in e-cigarette vapor — that is responsible for killing millions of Americans.

Read more: What does scientific research say about e-cigarettes?


State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, is my state senator and sponsor of the bill to hike vaporizer taxes. He published a statement last week calling out the “teen vaping epidemic,” borrowing a term from the Trump administration.

Bolkcom cites a University of Michigan study showing recent use of vaporizers among 12th-graders increased ten percentage points between 2017 and 2018, the largest single-year increase in adolescent substance use on record. Bolkcom also sent me several other pieces of restrictionist literature targeting e-cigarettes.

Indeed, e-cigarettes are not without health risk, but the full scope of those risks is unclear. If someone tells you e-cigarettes and vaporizers are proven to be just as dangerous as real cigarettes, they are either dishonest or misinformed.

Keep in mind these products have only been widely available for about a 15 years, which is not long enough to provide conclusive insights about long-term effects. While findings vary, there is some evidence vaporizers may be significantly less harmful than combustible tobacco.

A review of available research last year by University of Michigan scholars found the relative benefits of vaping far outweigh the risks, even accounting for increased use among young people, potentially saving millions of life-years in the next half century.

“I don’t think this paper resolves the argument once and for all. But we have to go with the best evidence available. … I believe the case is strong; the benefits outweigh the risks,” Kenneth Warner, dean emeritus of the Michigan School of Public Health, said in a statement promoting his study.

It would be ideal if no young person ever picked up a nicotine habit at all, but that’s not realistic. Given that some teens will use nicotine, we should focus on harm reduction instead of prohibition. Let’s wait for clear evidence before rushing to regulate.

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