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When It Comes to Vaping, America Should Follow the UK’s Lead

Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

The years-long quest to determine the relative safety of electronic cigarettes and similar vaping devices (“vaporizers”) has proven a bit tricky. Different flavors of the liquids used in these devices (“e-liquids”) are made with different ingredients, meaning that the risks associated with those liquids vary greatly from one flavor to the next. The materials used in the construction of e-cigarettes also have varying impacts on a person’s health; for instance, e-cigarettes that utilize ceramic heating coils could potentially inflict serious damage to a user’s lungs and trachea. A different study from researchers at Johns Hopkins also discovered traces of heavy metals in the aerosols produced by certain heating coils.

Needless to say, we do not have a complete picture regarding the effects of vaping on human health. We’ve discovered quite a bit about it over the last decade or so, but many important questions remain unanswered. However, based on what we do know, it certainly does appear that vaping could prove to be the lifeline that at least some of America’s millions of smokers have been desperately seeking.

Having concluded that the benefits far outweigh the risks, the United Kingdom has muscled straight on past the United States on this issue. In 2016, London’s Royal College of Physicians not only endorsed the use of e-cigarettes as smoking cessation aids, but also concluded that vaping devices are up to 95% less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes.

“Large-scale substitution of e-cigarettes, or other non-tobacco nicotine products, for tobacco smoking has the potential to prevent almost all the harm from smoking in society. Promoting e-cigarettes, NRT and other non-tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible, as a substitute for smoking, is therefore likely to generate significant health gains in the UK.”

Echoing those same sentiments, experts from Public Health England recently concluded that e-cigarettes have helped thousands upon thousands of UK citizens quit smoking and recommended that the devices even be made available for purchase in UK hospitals. They also reaffirmed the Royal College of Physicians’ conclusion that e-cigarettes are infinitely less harmful than real cigarettes, claiming that “the hazard to health arising from long-term vapour inhalation from the e-cigarettes available today is unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco.”

Obliterating any lingering doubts that momentum does indeed remain on the side of the vaping industry in the UK, a committee of MPs has recently recommended not only cutting taxes on e-cigarettes, but also relaxing regulations on advertising and lifting bans on vaping in certain public places. It’s impossible to conceive a scenario in which any American politician would dare make similar recommendations of their own, but Britain’s optimistic attitude towards vaping isn’t terribly surprising considering the wealth of research indicating that e-cigarettes are saving lives all across Europe. One study published in 2016 determined that millions of Europeans had either quit smoking altogether or at least cut back on their daily consumption of traditional cigarettes with the help of e-cigarettes.

Furthermore, the results of an important study published just last year appears to support the conclusion that vaping is significantly safer than smoking cigarettes. Funded by Cancer Research UK, the goal of the study was to try and assess the long-term impacts of vaping and other nicotine replacement therapies. After collecting and analyzing samples of various bodily fluids from a group of volunteers, researchers discovered that former smokers who had switched to vaping exclusively had drastically lower levels of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in their bodies than participants who either still smoked real cigarettes or switched back and forth between cigarettes and vaping.

In the United States, unfortunately, state and local governments haven’t taken quite as liberal of an approach to vaping as authorities in the UK. In fact, a number of states appear committed to making it as difficult as possible for long-time smokers to make the switch to vaping.

In the last several years, California, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. have all imposed significantly high taxes on vaping. In 2016, Pennsylvania imposed a uniquely devastating 40% tax on vaping products that forced more than 100 vape shops throughout the state to close their doors. On the other side of the Delaware River, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy had been pushing for a 75% wholesale tax on e-cigarettes in New Jersey earlier this year, though he ultimately settled for a 10-cent per milliliter tax on e-liquids. Governor Daniel Malloy also tried to push through a 75% vape tax in Connecticut last year, while Rhode Island lawmakers have been mulling an 80% vape tax supported by Governor Gina Raimondo.

In San Francisco, voters recently approved a ban on flavored tobacco that applies to both actual tobacco products and the e-liquids used in e-cigarettes. The Livingston Township Council in New Jersey went one step further, passing an ordinance that prohibits vape shops entirely in the town’s business districts.

The burdens being imposed on the vaping community by state and local legislators across the country raise serious ethical questions. For instance, it’s a well-documented fact that poor people and people struggling with mental illness account for a disproportionate share of cigarette smokers in the United States. For at least some of these folks, egregiously high taxes on vaping devices could doom their chances at a healthier life by effectively pricing them out of the vaping market altogether. Additionally, the stresses produced by poverty and mental illness can make quitting smoking an even more arduous task than it otherwise would be, hence the importance of ensuring that poor and mentally ill people have access to as wide of an array of smoking cessation tools as possible.

It’s not difficult to justify high taxes on addictive substances like tobacco or zoning restrictions meant to keep liquor stores away from schools. But vaping devices don’t belong in the same category as cigarettes and whiskey. They were never meant to serve as anyone’s principal vice, nor should they be treated as such. E-cigarettes were deliberately designed to help smokers abandon their self-destructive habit. And in that respect, they could be immensely successful; one recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health estimated that e-cigarettes could save more than 6 million American lives over the next 10 years. Of course, you won’t find any similar studies touting the potential public health benefits of your favorite liquor or cigarette brand, the reasons for which are plainly self-evident.

That being said, critics of the vaping industry most certainly do have justifiable concerns regarding the growing popularity of vaping among minors, and vaping advocates do themselves no favors when they dismissively attribute those concerns to the biases of anti-vaping activists and an alarmist national media. Here in the United States specifically, teenage vaping appears to have spiked with the introduction of Juul e-cigarettes. It would seem that the device’s inconspicuous design — it looks like a standard USB drive, and can even be recharged in your laptop’s USB port — is one of several attractive features that have caught teenagers’ attention.

For its part, Juul insists that its products are made exclusively for adult smokers — the company’s founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, claim that they were smokers for years and wanted to quit, but that they “could find no attractive alternative to cigarettes,” which in turn led to the creation of Juul. The company has also continuously reaffirmed its commitment to combating youth vaping, going so far as to pledge 30 million dollars over the next three years to “ independent research, youth and parent education, and community engagement.”

Juul’s promise to help combat the popularity of its own products among teens is a welcome development, but the industry as a whole would be wise to ramp up its efforts to keep e-cigarettes and vaporizers out of kids’ hands. If vaping becomes a new forbidden fruit for teenagers and begins to generate renewed interest in smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes, the general public will (quite understandably) conclude that vaping’s potential value as a smoking cessation aid and harm-reducing activity simply isn’t enough to excuse the potential resurrection of smoking among kids. Therefore, fair consideration must be given to policies that are specifically aimed at discouraging young people from picking up an e-cigarette and do not impose undue hardships on adult smokers who either already vape or are considering making the switch.

There’s still much research to be done on these devices and the potential harms they may be inflicting on the people who use them, and it’s imperative that America takes reasonable steps to minimize vaping’s appeal among young people. That being said, the data scientists have collected thus far makes one thing spectacularly clear; for some undetermined portion of America’s smokers, vaping could very well be the ticket to a future devoid of sticky clothes and ceaseless coughing — and perhaps even cancer diagnoses as well, if Lady Luck is so inclined. If legislators, regulators and activists are truly concerned with saving lives, then they are duty-bound to err on the side of harm reduction and must resist temptations to enact overly broad restrictions and costly regulations that limit smokers’ access to electronic cigarettes. The fact that such restrictions will inevitably have a disproportionate impact on marginalized people simply makes that obligation all the more obvious.