Thanks to the education efforts of public health activists, today few Americans are now unaware of the dangers of smoking. As a result, cigarette use dropped sharply throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But despite taxes, limitations on where tobacco users can smoke, and other public policies aimed at making the habit more expensive and difficult to engage in, a stubborn portion of adults continues to smoke and nearly half a million of them still die each year from smoking-related illnesses.
Thankfully, a new generation of devices promises to provide both these smokers who have trouble quitting and public health professionals with what they want: a safe and satisfying way to consume nicotine that drastically reduces the risks associated with smoking. Why, then, are states like New York trying to make these devices just as expensive, difficult to use, and unattractive as deadly cigarettes?
On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to ban the use of electronic cigarettes anywhere cigarettes are prohibited, including workplaces, bars, and restaurants. The purpose of the ban is supposedly to improve public health. But it has been established for years that vaping is at least 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, which kill about half their users. As new research out this month indicates, if all smokers switched to vaping, it would save nearly 87 million years of life. But some anti-tobacco zealots would rather allow these smokers to die than let tobacco companies profit from a new product.
They argue that we aren’t yet certain about the long-term risks that might be associated with vaping, so the best public health policy is to advocate total abstinence. As Cuomo put it, e-cigarettes “are marketed as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, but the reality is they also carry long-term risks to the health of users and those around them.” The reality is that there might be some, as yet unknown long-term risks associated with vaping, though all research indicates such risks for vapers and those around them are minimal. What we absolutely know for certain at this point is that cigarettes are deadly, and when cities enact laws that make it more difficult to vape, smoking increases.
When electronic cigarettes first hit the U.S. market, smoking cessation had hit a plateau, to the great frustration of those seeking to reduce the harms of tobacco use. After years of decline, the rate of smoking seemed stuck at 21 percent, not budging after 2005. That was until around 2010, as vaping began to grow in popularity. Between 2010 and 2015, the rate of traditional cigarette use among adults and minors finally started to decline again, reaching its current all-time low of 15 percent, and, according to research, this is not just a coincidence: Vaping was directly responsible for millions of smokers quitting their deadly cigarette habit.
It is, perhaps, the popularity that vaping has enjoyed over the last 17 years that has made it such a target for public health advocates. After all their advertising campaigns, taxes, and restrictions on smoking, it was profit-motivated businesses—some of them tobacco companies—that finally came up with a real solution to help those die-hard smokers quit. This should have been embraced as an achievement—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save millions around the world from tobacco-related illness and death. Instead, anti-tobacco zealots engaged in a campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering. Tragically, they’ve succeeded. While only 11 percent of U.S. adults believed e-cigarettes are as harmful as cigarettes in 2014, by 2015 almost 36 percent held this demonstrably incorrect perception.
New York’s ban will not improve health, will not reduce smoking rates, and will not save lives. Worst of all, it will continue to spread the toxic philosophy that it is better for government to block consumers’ access to safer tobacco alternatives, merely because of uncertainties about potential long-term risks, than to let individuals make their own risk-assessments and choices.