Want to save lives? Don’t regulate e-cigarettes

Smoking kills nearly half a million Americans every year. Tobacco-less vaping products, like electronic cigarettes, have helped many people kick their deadly smoking habit. So why are they controversial?

One reason is a recent study that suggests smokers who use electronic cigarettes are less likely to quit smoking. The study has received considerable media attention and has emboldened public health activists to call on governments to clamp down on electronic cigarettes, making them harder to buy and use. That could spell disaster for public health.

Yet, the study is seriously flawed. Published in Lancet Respiratory Medicine in January, it has been widely criticized within the academic community. "Not scientific", "grossly misleading" and "a major failure of the peer review system in this journal" are a few of the comments from experts in the field of smoking cessation.

How did the authors of the Lancet study come this their conclusion? They simply analyzed the results of 38 previous studies and concluded that e-cigarette users were 28 percent less likely to stop smoking, based on whether or not participants who ever used electronic cigarettes were able to quit — even if they didn't use e-cigarettes with the intention of quitting smoking. Yet, one of the authors of the studies included in the meta-analysis, Ann McNeil of the National Addiction Centre, said that the meta-analysis' use of her research was inappropriate and its results ought to be dismissed.

In fact, numerous studies have found that electronic cigarettes are at least as helpful in getting people to quit smoking as other nicotine replacement therapies. A study published in the journal Addiction in 2014 found that smokers trying to quit were 60 percent more likely to succeed if they used electronic cigarettes rather than going cold turkey or using nicotine replacement therapy.

Studies have also found e-cigarettes to be far less harmful than cigarettes. For example, an independent review commissioned by Public Health England published in August 2014 found that electronic cigarettes are at least 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes. This was echoed by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, who wrote: "Based on what we know today, there is broad agreement that e-cigarette use is significantly safer than cigarette smoking." Even Mitch Zeller, the FDA's tobacco "czar," asserted: "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."

Unfortunately, government officials are looking for ways to make switching to electronic cigarettes harder. This month, a House committee approved a proposal that would add electronic cigarettes to the national airplane smoking ban.

In addition, the Office of Management and Budget is reviewing proposed rules that would allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate electronic cigarettes — which contain no tobacco — as tobacco products. The rule would require pre-market approval by the FDA for "new" vaping products, while "grandfathering" in products if they were sold prior to 2007. E-cigarettes, which only entered the market in 2007, will face a regulatory process so costly and burdensome that few, if any, will make it back onto the market. Those that do will likely be owned by large companies and will be more expensive. Big tobacco companies, facing stiff competition since electronic cigarettes hit the market, likely look forward to this renewed protection of their once mighty cartel. But for consumers, it will be a significant setback.

Even for smokers who don't quit tobacco products entirely, any amount of substitution of vaping for smoking is better for their health. Early research shows that switching to vaping may even reverse lung damage.

While fears about children and non-smokers becoming unintentionally addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes is understandable, there are better ways to address those concerns than regulating a product that can help people quit smoking — the leading cause of preventable deaths — out of existence. As researchers Konstantinos E. Farsalinos and Riccardo Polosa of the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Greece wrote in their study of e-cigarette safety, vaping products "represent a historical opportunity to save millions of lives and significantly reduce the burden of smoking-related diseases worldwide." Let's not miss this opportunity by enacting irresponsible and heavy-handed regulation.

Originally posted at the Washington Examiner.