It’s 11:59 pm on a Wednesday night in America. Just the wrong time for your watermelon-flavored vape pod to run out. The same one that helped you quit the cigarettes that you smoked for 15 years. And you need this nicotine to help get you through a hectic week of work or study.
You dash through the glass doors of your favorite local store. But the time is now 12:01 am, and the cashier shakes his head at you: Effective immediately, flavored vape pods are banned in the US. But plenty of cigarettes are on sale behind the counter, among a reduced selection of vapes that you might enjoy less… So what do you do?
Similar scenes will be unfolding at convenience stores, smoke shops and other retail outlets throughout the US after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a partial ban on flavored vape products on February 6. The ban applies to most systems that use pre-filled pods. Fruit-, dessert-and mint-flavored pods are banned, but menthol and tobacco flavors are not.
Open-tank and refillable vaping devices and flavored vape juices are exempt, as are disposable e-cigarettes. But manufacturers of all vape products must submit premarket tobacco product applications (PMTA) to the FDA by May 12—an arduous and costly process that is likely to be prohibitive for many smaller companies.
Currently, vape products are sold under “enforcement discretion.” If applications are submitted by the deadline, a product may remain on the market for a year while it is under review. Otherwise, it must be removed by the manufacturer.
Trump and the FDA claim the ban is necessary because of a rise in vaping among youths. Stanford University research suggests that in 2018, vaping rates increased by 78 percent for high schoolers and by 48 percent for middle school students. And just yesterday, executives from the major US vape manufacturers testified before Congress about rising youth vaping rates.
“Nobody using these vaping products really knows how they will affect their health,” said Rep. Dianne DeGette (D-CO) in a statement. “Yet, while consumers remain in the dark of the possible health consequences, these companies are making billions of dollars as they lure a new generation of young people into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”
Reality is more complex than some anti-vaping crusaders claim, however. As Filter has reported, more young people are also reporting negative opinions about regular nicotine vaping. A survey of students in the 12th, 10th and 8th grades found that roughly 40 percent of them consider vaping to be harmful.
And while it is true that overall vaping rates have increased, this is not evidence that large numbers of youth are dependent on the products. The majority of youth vapers had vaped for five days or fewer in the past month, showed a recent analysis of national data. Most promising, the use of combustible cigarettes has hit an all-time low for high school seniors and sophomores.
So does Trump’s prohibition on certain vape products actually protect people, or only put them in more danger? Experts say it’s the latter (though they are relieved that the administration pulled back from a total flavors ban proposed in the fall). They argue that pleasant vape flavors, demonized for allegedly encouraging children to vape, are in fact a vital harm reduction tool for people to transition away from more harmful tobacco.
The best available research suggests that vaping is at least 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, though that is not the same as claiming that vaping has no risks.
“It is terrible to restrict a less harmful product that smokers need to help them quit, while leaving harmful cigarettes in every other store,” Dr. David Abrams, professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the NYU College of Global Public Health, told Filter in September after Michigan implemented a full and immediate flavored vape ban. “This policy damages [vapers] and makes them want to get their products from illicit sources, or they’ll be forced back to smoking cigarettes.”
Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash.