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Killing Us with Kindness: Democrats' War on Vaping Costs Lives

Liberals are supposed to the ones whose hearts “bleed” with concern for others’ welfare. That’s why modern liberals generally reject an abstinence-only approach to regulation. They recognize that policies aimed at reducing harm, like sex education, needle exchange programs, and addiction services, are beneficial to both individuals and society while prohibition merely creates injustice and suffering. Which is why it is odd that liberal Democrats are lobbying to ban harm-reducing alternatives to smoking. Contrary to their image of kindness, support for an e-cigarette prohibition reveals an alarming heartlessness and contempt toward the millions of people who will end up sick, dead, or in jail as a result.

On October 16th, two separate congressional hearings will tackle youth vaping. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce plans to focus on legislation to address the “epidemic” of youth tobacco use, while the House Committee on Appropriations will discuss the threat e-cigarettes pose to public health. It’s unlikely these hearings will be different from those held previously by these committees, which mainly served as a demonstration of lawmaker ignorance on the issue and, more disturbingly, how deceitful some are willing to be in order to get their ban.

Throughout the previous hearings, lawmakers attempted to implicate nicotine e-cigarettes in the recent U.S. outbreak of lung injuries that is actually tied to using THC vapor products. They stoked the public’s fear about the unknown harms e-cigarettes might pose for both adults and children, even as research continually demonstrates that these products are far less harmful than smoking and are effective cessation tools. And they consistently dismissed the benefits these products provide to adult smokers, along with the life-threatening consequences of banning e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes did not cause the outbreak of vaping lung injuries. Throughout the summer and up until now, the news has been flooded with stories of people—mostly young people—hospitalized with severe respiratory issues after vaping. Though it was clear at least as early as July that most of these cases involved vaping illicit THC products, the news media, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and politicians exploited the situation to fuel confusion and public panic over e-cigarettes. Even while admitting that most of the cases are linked, not to nicotine e-cigarettes, but rather to THC vapes, anti-vaping advocates (in and outside of government) have seized on the hysteria to pursue the e-cigarette bans they’ve wanted for years.

E-cigarettes have been in use in the U.S. and around the world for more than a decade and nothing like this outbreak has ever occurred. The mere fact that it is sudden and geographically restricted (there are no reports outside of the U.S.) indicates that “e-cigarettes” per se are likely not to blame, but rather some new product, ingredient, or manufacturer is the culprit. On top of that, the vast majority of patients report vaping THC. While 16 percent said they only vaped nicotine, there’s good reason to believe some of them are choosing not to admit illegal THC use. This does not justify the government and the media continuing to portray the outbreak only as “related to vaping.” Doing so has likely resulted in many people becoming sick who might not have if they’d been made aware of the link between the illness and THC vaping.

But spinning the story as related to vaping, or even less accurately, related to e-cigarette use, has provided more public support for e-cigarette bans. According to a National Opinion Research Center poll issued by the University of Chicago this week, 81 percent of respondents thought vaping nicotine was very harmful while only 38 percent believed the same about vaping THC. 

This support allowed governors to leapfrog the legislative process and enact sweeping bans on e-cigarettes, like the one imposed in Michigan by Gov. Gretchen Witmer (D). In that state, anyone now caught carrying four or more flavored products is presumed to have an “intent to sell.” As a misdemeanor, the crime is punishable by fines and six months in jail. In comparison, carrying more than the legal amount of cannabis in Michigan is only a civil infraction, the penalty for which is a $100 fine—no matter how much they’re carrying or how many times they’re caught. Wildly, this means that the black market THC oil dealers likely responsible for the current outbreak functionally face zero consequences while licensed vapor retailers who provide adults with safer alternatives to cigarettes are forced to close their doors or do jail time.

Prohibition ruins lives. Speaking of criminal justice, it’s maddening that Democrats champion ending marijuana prohibition and rightfully recognize the racial and social injustices it caused, but refuse to acknowledge that the exact same thing will happen if they ban vaping. It may be upper-class white kids who make up the majority of those who vape, but it will be people of color and lower socioeconomic means who end up in jail (or worse) for selling illegal e-cigarettes.

Shutting down the licensed retailers who have every incentive to follow the law will not simply make vaping go away. Instead, it will drive the millions of e-cigarette users into the black market. There, consumers will have little guarantee about the safety of the products they’re buying, dealers have no incentive to check customers’ age, and regulators have a limited ability to track or stop them. In fact, it is very likely the fact that THC oil remains illegal in most states that led to the current outbreak, which many reports indicate stems not just from vaping THC oil, but primarily from vaping black market THC oil. Lab testing of the THC products thought to be involved in the outbreak has found a number of contaminants that might explain some of the illnesses, such as pesticides, vitamin E acetate, and harmful illicit drugs. Other tests have found that cheap materials used in making knock-off vaping devices could also might also explain some of the issues involved in the outbreak.

For those vapers reasonably fearful of black market products, there is also the do-it-yourself route. “Homebrewing” e-liquid may eliminate the risks of vaping the harmful chemicals found in black market products. But it also comes with its own dangers. These new dangers stem from the challenges of choosing safe ingredients, in safe concentrations, and avoiding contamination. Not everyone will get it right all of the time. Some may add in too much nicotine while others may unwittingly choose unsafe ingredients (i.e., vitamin E acetate), while still others will fail at keeping their products sterile. As with the bathtub distillers of Prohibition, any one of these mistakes could cause widespread illness or death.

A Big Gift to Big Tobacco: Faced with these risks, many of the eleven million adult e-cigarette users in the U.S. might choose a third option. This one, while perfectly legal, is perhaps even riskier than the other two: returning to smoking. Though Democrats have spun their efforts to ban e-cigarettes as them fighting Big Tobacco from hooking the next generation on nicotine, what they’re actually doing is rescuing cigarettes from the brink of extinction.

Cigarette sales have been in something of a freefall over the last few years, declining at an accelerated pace as e-cigarette sales rose. But the numbers have started to shift. Bonnie Herzog, the managing director of tobacco research at Wells Fargo Securities LLC, estimated in June that cigarette sales had declined an astonishing 10% over the last year and that decline mirrored the rise in e-cigarette sales. But by September the decline in cigarette sales seemed to be leveling off, corresponding uncoincidentally with a decline in e-cigarette sales. The October data has not yet been released, but Herzog recently hinted it will show that the cigarette business continues to “benefit from vaporers returning to combustible cigarettes.”

Do Adult Lives Matter? One of the goals of past congressional e-cigarette hearings seems to have been to reinforce the false binary that protecting children from nicotine addiction requires banning e-cigarettes. Genuine or not, the position crumbles under even the weakest examination. For one thing, anti-vaping advocates’ insistence that there’s a youth “tobacco” use crisis ignores the evidence that youth smoking has hit an all-time record low

This is not to say that the increase in past-month e-cigarette use isn’t concerning. The concern and proposed solutions, however, don’t mesh with the evidence. First, these numbers reflect any use in the previous month. As Dr. Brad Rodu noted in his analysis of the 2018 data, less than 1 percent of non-smoking high schoolers reported regularly using e-cigarettes. The rise in adolescent e-cigarette use over the last two years also followed an impressive 30 percent decline after 2015. Though they’ll never admit it, the most likely cause of this jump in experimental use is the multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns orchestrated by anti-vaping groups targeted at teenagers. As the government found out when its “My Anti-Drug” campaign backfired, telling teenagers that all their peers are doing something (aka there’s an “epidemic”), but they shouldn’t actually tends to encourage—not discourage—use.  

Most importantly, there are other ways to address the youth issue that are less likely to backfire. We’ve managed to find a way to balance adult access and adolescent use with alcohol where vodka comes in every flavor imaginable and you can even buy alcohol-infused candy and whipped cream. We’ve also done it with cannabis where edibles come in a plethora of flavors, like “blue raspberry taffy” “Fruity Pebbles” and “S’mores.” Presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) recently told reporters that, while he was worried about youth access to marijuana edibles under legalization, it’s “something we’ve been able to fix over time.” It also doesn’t seem to be a major concern for the other Democrats in Congress rallying for marijuana legalization. Why then do they seem to think nicotine is different? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be no better than it is nicotine.

For whatever reason, Democrats have decided that they can’t tolerate the use of this drug, even though it’s no more addictive and certainly less harmful than other legally available drugs. “My body, my choice” apparently only matters if you make the right choice. And their concerns about social justice, harm reduction, or even science suddenly go M.I.A. on the issue of nicotine. I don’t expect they’ll make a reappearance at tomorrow’s hearings. Democrats have already shown us that they’re fresh out of empathy for adult smokers—especially those who had the audacity to use nicotine products without government permission. They’ll say they’re doing it because they care more about protecting teenagers from the small risks nicotine might pose than saving adult smokers’ lives. But those children will be adults soon enough. Some of them will smoke. And if they ban e-cigarettes, Democrats will be killing them with their “kindness.”