After years of debate the FDA said today that e-cigarettes, hookahs and vaporized methods of nicotine consumption will be federally regulated, just like their smokier cousins.
The FDA has been studying the effects of e-cigarettes for years and has been debating whether their use as a replacement for regular cigarettes is worth the ill health effects they may have. E-cigs appear to have pluses and minuses. If you don’t smoke, and then you start with e-cigarettes, you’ve started a less healthy habit than, you know, nothing. However, compared to smoking tobacco, numerous studies back up the fact that e-cigs are much less dangerous–a 2015 Public Health England study said about 95 percent less dangerous, to be exact. Their complete lack of tar means that the carcinogens are gone, even if the chemicals that remain, such as nicotine, are not great for you.
Between 2011 and 2015 there was a 12.6 percent increase in e-cig use. The highest increase was among 18-to-24-year-olds, which is what makes the FDA nervous. So do all the fancy, supposedly youth-friendly flavors that vaping offers. These new regulations, which apply in 90 days, will prevent sales to minors, outlaw free samples and will mandate FDA testing of new products. The FDA will also, as in the case of regular tobacco, have control over the use of terms such as “light” or “mild,” which are seen as misleadingly suggestive of healthfulness. Toughest of all, they will “Requir(e) premarket review and authorization of new tobacco products by the FDA.” So much for those many juice varieties.
If teens who didn’t smoke before–and aren’t some grizzled old dude trying to dial down his three unfiltered packs a day habit–begin vaping instead of doing nothing, that is not great. But people who currently smoke tobacco, or who quit less than a year ago, are most likely to use e-cigarettes. Never-smokers and people who quit longer ago are less likely. That seems to back the case for their benefit as a stepping stone away from regular cigarettes.
It would be great if we lived in a wonderful, magical health land where nobody ever liked nicotine or tobacco. We don’t.
It may make sense to continue to restrict nicotine consumption for minors. However, American health officials have long been allergic to the concept of harm reduction (Brits are a little better). In the U.S., there has been a heavy push towards not encouraging e-cigarettes ever since they appeared, even though they are demonstrably less bad than burning tobacco.
The FDA regulating e-cigs is a typically heavy-handed answer to the problem of vapin’ in the boys room. And if the industry gets killed by this regulation–and it will at least be shackled, considering the sluggish pace of the FDA–actual human beings may follow.
Discouraging safer smoking products that appeal directly to younger people–e-cigs and hookahs, both,–will probably push them back into smoking regular cigarettes, if anything. There’s a good chance these new regulations will result in the opposite of a public health win.
It would be great if we lived in a wonderful, magical health land where nobody ever liked nicotine or tobacco. We don’t. We live in one where the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 480,000 people die each year from smoking-related causes. That’s dire. We should celebrate e-cigs as the improvement that they are, even if they aren’t made out of kale.
Plus, e-cigarettes are never going to be as ubiquitous as regular cigarettes. They don’t look as cool. They’re just less likely to kill the people who look kind of silly smoking them. Which is cool.