Despite Setbacks, Vaping Is Here to Stay
E-cigarettes have become a topic of serious controversy around the United States — and not without reason. The number of teenagers using e-cigarettes has increased once again. And already, 13 people have died and over 800 more have become sick from using THC-containing vaping products derived from marijuana.
Although nothing has linked the current spate of illnesses to the types of “closed system” e-cigarette products sold in convenience stores — or any nicotine e-cigarettes, for that matter —many have sprung into action. Officials in several states have used emergency powersto issue temporary bans on flavored e-cigarette products. One state, Massachusetts, has issued a temporary total ban on all e-cigarettes, and a temporary federal ban on e-cigarette flavors seems almost certain to take force in just a few months. Meanwhile, the nation’s largest retailer has pulled e-cigarettes from its shelves. As a result, the until-recently booming e-cigarette industry faces what many consider an existential threat.
Yet while there may be some significant bumps in the road — and even a few bankruptcies — as a result of the current disease outbreak, it’s unlikely to doom the e-cigarette industry altogether. As severe as the actions to date have been, nobody has seriously proposed an outright ban; even the Massachusetts effort is temporary. And so long as e-cigarettes don’t face an outright ban, their superior safety, cleanliness and profitability mean that they’ll almost certainly survive and thrive in the long run.
Let’s start with the facts: Although not entirely safe, e-cigarettes are much safer to use than combustible cigarettes. While e-cigarettes contain the same nicotine as cigarettes, can be addictive, and may have long-term health consequences that doctors have not yet discovered, these risks pale in comparison to the known risks of smoking combustibles. This is largely because e-cigarettes don’t produce the witches brew of harmful carcinogens that one inhales when smoking combustible cigarettes.
Given that almost half a million Americans die each year from smoking-related illnesses, even an incremental safety improvement over combustible cigarettes would save thousands of lives. The best estimates suggest that if e-cigarettes contributed to reducing the current smoking prevalence from 15% to 5% in seven years, then by 2100, over 6 million lives would be saved.
One safety advantage of vaping is beyond dispute. Each year, combustible cigarettes result in 7,600 fires that kill over 300 Americans and injure over 900. But because using e-cigarettes does not involve setting tobacco on fire, these devices cannot start fires. While there have been a few incidents involving problematic e-cigarette batteries, these have caused just about one injury per month over the past decade.
And the advantages of e-cigarettes don’t end with increased safety. The lack of combustion also makes e-cigarettes cleaner than combustibles. They produce no ash, and the aerosol they generate does not leave the lingering odors associated with combustible cigarettes. For these reasons, encouraging adult smokers who crave nicotine to switch to e-cigarettes is almost certainly good public policy.
E-cigarettes’ relative safety reduces the likelihood of an outright ban. But the fact that they provide more profit opportunities than their combustible cousins is just as important to securing their long-term future. The newness of the product category means new opportunities for innovation and enormous profits. These investment incentives do not exist in the mature — and declining — market for combustible cigarettes. Every big tobacco company has invested in e-cigarettes for just this reason.
So unless lawmakers go further than they have already — and there’s little sign they will — this combination of factors should ensure that e-cigarettes continue to exist.
In the meantime, officials can and should focus on adopting policies that will almost certainly have positive public health results. Taking steps to fight youth vaping, for instance, would serve an important public interest. Passing laws to limit e-cigarette use in schools, impose a national 21-to-purchase age for all nicotine products, and eliminate widespread sale of bona fide candy flavors are just a few examples that would go a long way toward reducing teenage vaping numbers. Implementing manufacturing standards to ensure that disease outbreaks like the current one don’t recur would also make sense.
E-cigarettes produce enough advantages for just about everyone to secure their long-term future. In short, vaping is here to stay.
Eli Lehrer is President and a Co-founder of the R Street Institute.