It’s time to stop confusing the public with sensationalist rhetoric on e-cigarettes
The problem of misinformation is widespread. The public constantly receives alarmist misrepresentations about vaccinations, the food they eat, the household products they use and now e-cigarettes and vaping. But hysterical rhetoric has consequences, because people act on what they are told. And health officials at all levels of government are misinforming Americans that e-cigarettes are as dangerous as cigarettes and pose an existential threat to their children. Unfortunately, this misinformation can be deadly.
Production of tobacco misinformation follows a formula, originating in “user fees” (read: taxes) Congress established in 2009, giving the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco (here). Every year, tobacco consumers pony up more than $700 million in user fees to the FDA, which then transfers a big chunk of that money to the National Institutes of Health, which distributes it to thousands of researchers at the nation’s universities to study tobacco products. This system, which has been operating for several years, isn’t set up to discover the truth about tobacco. Instead, it generates only what the NIH and others in the federal government want: bad news about all tobacco products, including tobacco-free, smoke-free and vastly safer e-cigarettes.
This bad news is then amplified by university media departments and our brave new world of social media, which makes it hard to see what’s true and what’s exaggeration, distortion or pure fiction. Americans are exposed to a tsunami of fictitious “dangers” from vaping and of an e-cigarette “epidemic” that will put a generation of youth in danger. Of course, no policy measure is too strong when our kids are at risk.
But the result of this misinformation cycle is significant. A study last month in JAMA Network Open found that the percentage of American adults who perceive e-cigarettes as equally harmful as cigarettes more than tripled from 11.5% in 2012 to more than 36% in 2017; those who perceive e-cigarettes as more harmful also tripled from 1.3% to more than 4%.
In short, Americans are listening to the alarmism about the “dangers” of e-cigarettes and the teen vaping “epidemic.” They deserve better from our lawmakers and public health officials. The FDA knows that nicotine is the reason people smoke, but it is not the reason that smokers die. Yet officials have not actively communicated this message to the public.
Even worse, the FDA has exaggerated the teen vaping problem by manipulating data and incorrectly blaming retailers to justify onerous regulations that will give consumers fewer healthier choices.
Meanwhile, the real risks are forgotten. Smoking continues to prematurely kill 500,000 Americans every year, and smoking-related healthcare costs are nearly $300 billion. According to the CDC, more than 16 million people live with a smoking-attributable disease.
In recent decades, anti-tobacco crusaders have tried everything to kill cigarettes, including litigation, legislation, taxation and regulation. But their crusade lost its direction when it started to target all tobacco products — even those that don’t contain tobacco. Officials in international health organizations and national governments know that “tobacco” is not synonymous with “smoking,” yet they purposefully conflate them. In desperation, they have tried to kill e-cigarettes and vaping, an innovative, satisfying and vastly safer cigarette substitute. Ironically and tragically, their actions are sustaining and extending the cigarette market.
E-cigarettes contain nicotine — which is addictive — but they lack the toxins in smoke that cause lung cancer, heart disease and other maladies. This substantial difference is what led prestigious British medical organizations like the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England to deem e-cigarettes at least 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes. In fact, the British government’s Department of Health helps smokers switch from combustibles to vapor.
The good news is that even though misinformation is rampant, American smokers are still using e-cigarettes more frequently — and more successfully — than FDA-approved medicines to help them quit, according to a population-level study using the FDA’s national survey. In February, British researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that e-cigarettes are nearly twice as effective in helping smokers quit as FDA-approved nicotine medicines like patches and gum.
Free and open conversation about truthful information is essential to a healthy democracy. But it’s also critical to establishing sound public health policy. It’s time for Americans to have all the facts about e-cigarettes, so they can make educated choices in order to enjoy longer and healthier lives.
by Brad Rodu