The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced broad new rules regulating the sales of cigarettes, cigars, hookahs and pipe tobacco. In addition to banning the sale of such products to consumers under 19 years old, they also bring e-cigarettes under the same onerous regulations as traditional tobacco products. While the public health goals of protecting consumers from possibly harmful vaping products and preventing kids from becoming addicted to nicotine are laudable goals, this heavy-handed approach will only likely push people—adults and teens alike—back toward far more harmful tobacco products.
While the long-term effects of vaping are still unknown, there’s little doubt that e-cigarettes are dramatically less harmful than other tobacco products. According to Britain’s Department of Health, available e-cigarette brands are at least 95 percent less harmful than regular cigarettes. And as the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products regulation, Mitch Zeller, notes, “If we could get all those people [who smoke] to completely switch all of their cigarettes to noncombustible cigarettes, it would be good for public health.” This is because, unlike traditional tobacco products, the “vapor” is not produced through combustion and does not contain tar.
In fact, the Royal College of Physicians just this week issued a report recommending doctors promote the use of e-cigarettes as a substitute for traditional smoking. While not risk-free, the report noted that vaping can help prevent patients from relapsing and save “millions” of lives.
Yet, such products do contain nicotine, a highly addictive chemical. With teen use of vaping products trebling in the last few years, many anti-smoking advocates understandably worry that e-cigs are simply a way for “big tobacco” companies to create an entirely new generation of lifelong smokers. However, age restrictions won’t protect minors from nicotine and might even result in greater consumption of the chemical. In a study published this March, researchers at Cornell University found that teen smoking of traditional tobacco products—which on average contain much more nicotine than vape juice—went up by nearly 12 percent in states that institutes age limits on purchases of e-cigarettes.
The FDA’s new rule may also keep some adult smokers from switching away from traditional tobacco. That’s because it requires e-cigarette products that weren’t on the market prior to 2007 to undergo a rigorous pre-approval process that few manufacturers will be able to afford, so it is likely that only big tobacco companies will be able to get their products back into a less competitive vaping market. With fewer companies and products to compete with each other and onerous pre-approval rules, innovation will slow to a crawl. Where once intense competition prompted vaping companies to reduce prices and introduce safety features, like heavy metal-free e-liquid and adjustable nicotine levels, the new rules will freeze the technology in time. This might be a boon for big tobacco companies, but it would be a significant setback for consumer health, as smokers will have fewer and more expensive options to switch from tobacco to vaping products.
Smoking kills nearly half a million Americans every year, so any measure that reduces that harm is welcome. So while e-cigarettes may have some health risks and teens might give them a try, all available evidence indicates the increasing popularity of vaping products is good for public health overall. As former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona wrote: “Based on what we know today, there is broad agreement that e-cigarette use is significantly safer than cigarette smoking.”
It’s now up to the members of Congress to block the FDA’s reckless and heavy-handed regulation or risk missing out on an historic opportunity to finally begin to eliminate the deadly and wholly preventable diseases caused by tobacco smoking.