The FDA Shouldn’t Give Into Irrational E-Cigarette Fears

The Food and Drug Administration is now on the wrong side of a new anti-vaping campaign. Instead of helping teens reject using tobacco or e-cigarettes, the new FDA plan would end up discouraging people from quitting cigarette smoking — an outcome no one wants.

Where did the FDA go so wrong? During hearings before Congress, the newly appointed commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, declared that “…as a physician and a cancer-survivor I’m not going to countenance a rise in adolescent smoking rates in this country under my watch.” But then this week the FDA announced plans for a campaign to warn children, not about smoking, but about the “dangers” of e-cigarettes. The effort that will almost certainly result in higher teen and possibly adult use of tobacco products. Worst of all, it appears to be aimed at appeasing Democrats in Congress who have been fighting an ongoing, unscientific battle against vaping.

Gottlieb had riled Democrats on e-cigarette policy in July by delaying the agency’s “deeming rule,” an Obama-era rule which will extend the agency’s tobacco regulatory authority to tobacco products not previously regulated, including electronic cigarettes (which contain no tobacco and sometimes don’t even contain nicotine).

Specifically, the deeming rule requires e-cigarettes to go through a lengthy and costly pre-market approval process — which even traditional cigarettes get to bypass — before they can be sold on the market. Furthermore, there is no guarantee when or if the FDA would ever approve any of these applications. The FDA itself estimated that 99 percent of the vaping products currently on the market would likely disappear forever as a result of the new rules.

The delay in the deeming rule means that these newly regulated non-combustible tobacco products would have until August 2022 to file pre-market approval applications. Yet, this modest delay prompted 13 Senate Democrats last week to accuse Gottlieb of granting these products “a free pass.” In fact, the proposal merely affords existing producers of electronic cigarettes, most of which are small companies, a few extra years to gather the necessary documentation rather than killing their businesses outright.

But taking political heat over the deeming rule is no excuse for Gottlieb’s FDA launching a new assault on e-cigarettes. Almost all of the scientific research available indicates that electronic cigarettes are as safe as the nicotine patch — a smoking alternative considered so safe they are recommended for pregnant smokers.

Furthermore, evidence shows that e-cigarettes are more effective as a smoking-cessation tool than any other available cessation aids. Meanwhile, underage tobacco-use has already plummeted, hitting its lowest rate ever. And research indicates that, like it or not, the decline in teen may have been driven by the availability of e-cigarettes. Conversely, as a 2016 Cornell University study found, when access to e-cigarettes is restricted for teenagers, their use of traditional cigarettes increases.

Initiation of vaping by teenagers should be discouraged, but policy makers should also realize that the risks of vaping pale in comparison to the risks of smoking.

Despite extensive scientific testing showing e-cigarettes are far safer to traditional tobacco, fear-mongering campaigns continue to spread the ludicrous idea that vaping is a greater threat to health than even traditional smoking. Tragically, it has worked. A poll in 2016 found that 35 percent of adult smokers believe vaping is equally or more harmful than combustible cigarettes. This means fewer smokers will switch to non-combustible sources of nicotine and will be more likely to die as a result of their tobacco habit.

Regardless of how well-intentioned the new FDA teen-focused campaign may be, it will also perpetuate the inaccurate idea that vaping is dangerous to existing adult smokers. While it might succeed in getting fewer teens to try electronic cigarettes, it will also likely scare teen and adult smokers away from switching to the far less harmful cigarette alternative and instead stick with cigarettes, which kill upwards of half those who use them.

Commissioner Gottlieb will have to decide if temporarily appeasing the irrational fears of a handful of Democrats is worth these unintended consequences or whether his FDA will instead provide the American public with unbiased and accurate facts about vaping so we can make our own informed health decisions.

Originally published to The Hill.