Staff Columnist

Lawmakers reject science in e-cigarette debate

A Juul vaping system with accessory pods in various flavors. Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
A Juul vaping system with accessory pods in various flavors. Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary

Last week, members of Congress held a hearing about one of the greatest misinformation campaigns in contemporary politics.

No, I’m not referring to former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee about Russian election interference, although that certainly was important as well.

You probably didn’t hear much about another meeting that took place on the same day as the widely covered Mueller spectacle. Democrats on the U.S. House Oversight Committee led a hearing examining e-cigarettes and the “youth nicotine epidemic.”

“We don’t need more studies. We already know the truth here.”

- U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib

D-Mich.

Unfortunately, the event was dominated by gross misinterpretations of the facts and plainly anti-scientific rhetoric.

Vaping is an important public policy topic here in Iowa, where some policymakers have proposed restricting access to vapor products in response to the popularity of Juul brand e-cigarettes. Last year, Iowa lawmakers introduced bills that would increase taxes on e-cigarettes, and increase the age to purchase all nicotine products from 18 to 21.

Those bills did not pass, but restrictionists vow to try again next year, and the federal government is in the process of imposing new rules on e-cigarette sellers.

Many of the claims made by anti-vaping advocates cannot be traced back to scientific research, and many that can have been distorted or overstated.

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The main points of the arguments presented at the Capitol last week are that e-cigarettes are just as harmful as combustible tobacco, and that e-cigarettes have no value as smoking cessation tools. Neither claim appears to be true.

“I’m not going to sit here and allow this committee to be used by anybody, even from the other side, to say that e-cigarettes, vaping, Juul is not killing our people. They are,” said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Does vaping kill people? There are two known cases of vape devices exploding and killing users in the United States. To compare, estimates for the number of Americans killed by lightning strikes each year range from 30 to 100.

The critics’ underlying insinuation — that inhaling flavored nicotine vapor is closely linked to human mortality — is not supported by evidence.

England’s national public health agency reports e-cigarette use is 95 percent safer than smoking cigarettes.

Similarly, the National Academies of the Sciences wrote in a report last year, “There is conclusive evidence that completely substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces users’ exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens present in combustible tobacco cigarettes.”

Since we know vaping is significantly less hazardous than smoking, we should celebrate the prospect of nicotine addicts switching over. Politicians disagree.

“There is no credible medical evidence of Juul’s most fundamental marketing claim. None,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said last week, referring to marketing of Juul e-cigarettes as smoking alternatives.

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The literature is somewhat less clear on this question, but the evidence certainly is greater than “none.” The National Academies of the Sciences reports there is “moderate evidence” that e-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation tool.

Since the current body of research is inconclusive, it was especially troubling to hear Tlaib say, “We don’t need more studies. We already know the truth here.”

That is the exact opposite of the truth. Even researchers who are concerned about e-cigarettes’ health hazards consistently emphasize the need to continue researching the long-term effects of a practice that has been common for less than a decade.

The new generation of drug warriors is particularly alarmed at the “teen vaping epidemic,” pointing to research that shows an uptick in nicotine consumption by middle school and high school students. However, a closer look at the data shows little evidence e-cigarette use by young Americans represents an epidemic.

About 21 percent of high school students used vaporizer products in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Youth Tobacco Survey. Journalists and politicians consistently neglect to mention that figure includes teens who have tried e-cigarettes just one time in the 30 days preceding the survey.

To put that in context, 20 percent of high school juniors said they had at least one drink of alcohol — which everyone agrees poses significant health risks — in the past 30 days, according to the 2018 Iowa Youth Survey.

It turns out only about 5 percent of American high school students are regular vape users, according to federal research. Any substance dependency among minors unequivocally is a bad thing, but it is not an epidemic.

The charge to overregulate nicotine devices is a bipartisan affair. The anti-vaping bills in the Iowa Legislature had some bipartisan support, and President Donald Trump’s administration has led the effort to restrict vape sales through bureaucratic regulation.

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But it is especially disappointing to see Democrats in Congress — all of whom pride themselves on trusting climate science, and many of whom recognize drug prohibition’s disastrous effects on public health — resorting to such anti-scientific scare tactics.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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