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Regulating E-Cigarettes Creates the Wrong Incentives

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is gearing up to regulate electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) by early October. These regulations, rather than protecting the public health, will unintentionally push people towards using more dangerous tobacco alternatives.

Smokers all over the world have transitioned to e-cigarettes because they believe them to be a safer and more convenient alternative to tobacco. Users inhale a vapor that contains a mix of nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerin, flavoring ingredients—and no tobacco.

To date, users have been able to enjoy these products without the inconvenience of having to go to designated smoking areas and inhaling the harmful tar from actual smokers’ cigarettes. A recent study conducted by the American Medical Association (AMA) concluded that “although it cannot be said that currently marketed e-cigarettes are safe, e-cigarette vapor is likely to be much less toxic than cigarette smoke.”

However, that doesn’t seem to be good enough for some public health advocacy groups. The American Lung Association , the American Cancer Society, and others have expressed concerned that people are unaware that e-cigarettes contain a potentially dangerous mix of chemicals. The FDA’s tobacco czar has compared the current state of the e-cigarette industry to a “wild west” situation in dire need of regulation.

The proposed regulations will likely have severe ununitended consequences by decreasing the incentives to stay away from more dangerous tobacco alternatives. These regulations will raise the price of e-cigarettes, decrease innovation in the market, and force users to consume them outside around smokers, thereby exposing them to secondhand smoke and the temptation to turn back to traditional tobacco products.

Regulators’ main concern seems to be that e-cigarettes will encourage more people to start using nicotine (and eventually tobacco products) and prevent current smokers from quitting. With a flavored product that doesn’t require users to go outside, has lower health risks, and is less expensive, nicotine use loses many of the costs associated with smoking. Therefore, people will have less incentive to quit or stay away from nicotine products to begin with.

All medical professionals will readily agree that regularly inhaling anything other than the mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide around you is detrimental to your health. Of course, it would be better from a health perspective if people didn’t use nicotine at all. However, as an alternative to smoking, e-cigarettes could save millions of lives.

More troubling is the fact that the FDA has announced plans to regulate the e-cigarette market without conducting any substantial research. And while secondhand vapor may seem like a legitimate concern, the majority of studies conducted show that this is not the case.

Unless new evidence shows that e-cigarettes are comparable to tobacco products in their effects on public health, regulators should be careful of unintentionally pushing users away from a safer mode of nicotine consumption.