The March 19 announcement by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera of steps to ban the sale of all e-cigarettes in the city is the logical culmination of an unrelenting nationwide campaign—one that hypes a so-called “epidemic” of teen vaping while ignoring the saved lives of adults who stop smoking combustible cigarettes and of teens who never start.
The press release uses classic drug-panic hyperbole: “San Francisco has never been afraid to lead and we’re certainly not afraid to do so when the health and lives of our children are at stake.”
Earth to Herrera: Not one teen has died from vaping.
Actually, San Francisco does have a proud history of harm reduction leadership, stretching back to the founding of the city’s first (illegal) syringe exchange program in 1988. But now, when it comes to death and disease caused by cigarettes, the opposite approach is being taken.
Tobacco harm reduction haters—sensing that public opinion, fueled by media attacks, is on their side—are going for a knockout blow against the companies that make e-cigarettes. Juul, of course, is based in San Francisco. Last year the city became the first in the US to ban flavored tobacco and vaping liquids (a move New York City is hoping to copy).
San Francisco’s new plan will ban all e-cigarettes that haven’t been approved by the FDA from being sold in the city. The hook? No e-cigarette has yet been approved by the anti-vaping FDA, as Herrera knows full well.
With a ban on e-cigarette sales, San Francisco stores will still stock cigarettes—but not products that are safer by orders of magnitude.
Herrera’s comments regurgitate so many lies about e-cigarettes. The most ubiquitous one is that e-cigarettes are tobacco products. They are not; there is no tobacco in vaping products. The fact that politicians and public health officials continue to categorize them as such seems designed to confuse the public about a device that research has found to be roughly twice as effective as nicotine patches or gum at helping people quit smoking.
How long will they be able to get away with this sophistry?
The press release also states: “Banning vaping products that target young people and push them towards addiction to nicotine and tobacco is the only way to ensure the safety of our youth.” It is not. Bans almost never work to keep drugs out of the hands of teenagers (marijuana and beer, anyone?) and prohibition has an array of negative consequences—in particular for young people of color.
“These products should not be on our shelves until the FDA has reviewed the threat they pose to public health,” said Herrera.
But combustible tobacco is what poses a threat to public health. With a ban on e-cigarette sales, San Francisco stores will still stock cigarettes—but not products that are safer by orders of magnitude.
Does Herrera have any idea how utterly illogical that is? As a result of smoking-related illnesses, 480,000 people die every year in the US. But the products that cause those deaths can stay on the shelves?
E-cigarettes have massive potential to prevent disease, disability and death—look at the 3 million vapers in the UK, at least 90 percent of whom have either quit cigarettes entirely or are working toward that goal. But this potential will never be realized in the US if smokers are unable to buy vaping products.
There is no youth epidemic of vaping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2017 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that only about 12 percent of American high school students used e-cigarettes in the past month. Even if the CDC’s observation —based on unpublished data—of a vaping increase in 2018 is correct, it doesn’t establish that there is an epidemic.
Why? Nearly 70 percent of surveyed students who vape—but do not smoke—used e-cigarettes on five days or fewer during the previous 30-day period. This represents “party” or “weekend” vaping—not regular, daily consumption.
Teenagers, as tobacco control zealots refuse to acknowledge, experiment with a range of drugs, nicotine included, and in most cases do not become addicted to those drugs.
Cutting smokers off from vaping flies in the face of the public health goals of reducing the rates of smoking and preventable deaths.
Another ridiculous assertion by Herrera is that vaping is not harm reduction: “These companies may hide behind the veneer of harm reduction, but let’s be clear, their product is addiction.”
Veneer of harm reduction? Over a decade of research has concluded that e-cigarettes significantly reduce harm. Public Health England estimates that e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than cigarettes. There is virtually no disagreement among scientists on this question. Moreover, the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA) has collected over 11,000 success-story testimonials from smokers who used smoke-free alternatives (mostly e-cigarettes) to quit or reduce their smoking.
Bans on e-cigarettes in no way “protect our kids.” On the contrary—and especially given children of smokers are more likely to become smokers themselves—cutting smokers off from vaping flies in the face of the public health goals of reducing the rates of smoking and preventable deaths.
Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash