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Unfounded E-Cigarette Fears Help Health Activist Groups But Harm Public Health

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A new Competitive Enterprise Institute report reveals how health activist groups and government agencies jeopardize public health by promoting the unfounded notion that e-cigarettes are as harmful as – or more harmful than – cigarettes, and by raising the specter of a teen smoking epidemic.

“E-cigarettes pose much less of a health risk than cigarette smoking, which kills nearly half a million Americans every year,” said Michelle Minton, CEI Senior Fellow and author of the report, Fear Profiteers: How E-cigarette Panic Benefits Health Activists. “Public health advocates and officials should help consumers by telling them the truth about e-cigarettes – that they are far less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. But instead, they are scaring people and imposing government restrictions on e-cigarettes that will discourage smoking cessation and put millions of smokers’ lives at further risk.”

The report explains that though fears about adolescent nicotine use are understandable, those fears don’t warrant misinforming the public or restricting access to lower-risk devices that help adult smokers – if the primary goal is to improve public health.

Unfortunately, promoting public health is not the sole priority of health charities. Fundraising is also a primary objective for activist groups. The most effective way to raise revenue and influence is to sound the alarm in news headlines about an urgent health problem, whether real or exaggerated.

That problem is compounded by the fact that health charities and government agencies work together to raise one another’s influence and, ultimately, increase each other’s bottom line. Anti-smoking and health advocacy groups, like the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, seek taxpayer-funded grants from government agencies, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health. In turn, the taxpayer-funded activists lobby Congress to increase funding for the government agencies that bestow grants on their organizations. These incentives can distort the debate around important public health issues like smoking cessation.

The facts about smoking and vaping show what is really at stake for public health:

  • E-cigarettes pose just 1-5 percent of the risk of cigarettes, according to Public Health England and other experts.
  • Substituting e-cigarettes for smoking could prevent up to 7 million premature deaths in the U.S., according to available research.
  • Past 30-day use of e-cigarette among high schoolers (including 18-year-olds who can legally purchase these devices) may have increased from 12 percent in 2017 to 21 percent in 2018, according to CDC survey data, but that may reflect experimentation. Previous data indicate that habitual use among teens is under 6 percent That’s not an epidemic.
  • Since the introduction of e-cigarettes in the U.S., adolescent use of cigarettes has more than halved, from 15.8 percent in 2011 to 7.6 percent in 2017, according to the CDC (which hasn’t yet released smoking data for 2018).

To help fix the problem of fear profiteers, Minton urges Congress to better oversee the role played by government agencies in setting health policies. “Congress needs to make sure FDA determines its policies based on what will benefit public health overall and investigate whether CDC funding is being used for science instead of activism,” Minton urged.

View the report: Fear Profiteers: How E-cigarette Panic Benefits Health Activists by Michelle Minton