Banning Vapes May Not be the Answer: Actually, It Could Make Problems Worse
Given rising evidence on vaping products, experts say banning them altogether might not fix the problem. It could drive teens to the black market and send adult smokers back to cigarettes.
Since July of this year, thousands of cases of vape-related lung illnesses have ravaged the U.S. population—more than 2,200 people have been affected and 48 have died. As more and more people fall ill and scientists scrambled to find answers, states and cities have begun imposing bans on vaping products. However, experts are saying this could make the problem worse.
The city of San Francisco banned e-cigarette sales, and by September, Massachusetts had outlawed e-cigarettes too. States like Michigan, Rhode Island, and New York began banning vaping products, and President Trump even discussed imposing a federal ban.
But one article notes that experts see one problem with these bans: the laws applied to e-cigarettes with nicotine. Researchers discovered over the last couple months that these cases of lung disease seem tied to Vitamin E acetate—an ingredient found mostly in black market vapes containing THC, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
Basically, these “prohibitionist” policies do not even address the vapes that are likely causing the problem. And by driving more people from the “safe” or legal options, it could drive more people directly toward “unsafe,” black market ones. According to a group of public health experts in a piece published in Science, these e-cigarette bans might be doing more harm than good.
Author Amy Fairchild, dean of Ohio State University’s College of Public Health, and coauthors argue that policy makers are jumping the gun. In their rush to address the surge in lung illnesses and teen vaping, “they may be depriving millions of adult smokers of a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes.” The experts call for policies that are cautious but not “alarmist.”
Smart policies could be implemented that regulate harmful vaping and contribute toward a form of harm reduction, just like 1980s exchange programs allowed injection drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones and reduce their chances of contracting HIV through shared needles. At the same time, critics worry that providing free needles would endorse drug use or make it easier for children to get hooked.
Criticisms aside, infection rates dropped precipitously. “The known harms of HIV were so great that the policy decision was made that this risk was worth taking,” said Fairchild. “The same calculus is at work here.”
And it’s no secret cigarettes are outright dangerous for our health. Cigarettes kill nearly 500,000 Americans every year, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that smoking costs the US more than $300 billion annually in medical bills and lost productivity.
Vaping is no perfect product either. E-cigarettes still contain nicotine, which is highly addictive, and they also include toxic flavorings, heavy metals, and carcinogenic chemicals. “There’s no question that e-cigarettes are not safe,” said Fairchild. “But it’s a question of proportionate risk.”
This means that these experts suggest they allow smokers to decide themselves between the lesser of two evils.
“We’d rather everyone quit nicotine completely,” agrees coauthor David Abrams, a public health expert at New York University. “But if they’re going to use it, I’d much rather they use a less harmful product.”
E-cigarettes have proven to help smokers in some regards, says a 2019 study conducted in the United Kingdom. The study found that e-cigarettes were more effective than other methods at helping people quit smoking because they deliver nicotine efficiently and meet people’s cravings better than lozenges or medications. That quality helped smokers stick with the vape instead of going back to cigarettes, and many people enjoy the flavored vape products.
However, these same attributes also make e-cigarettes attractive to teenagers. While teen cigarette smoking rates are at low levels, teen vaping rates are soaring. The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that over five million teenagers use e-cigarettes, often daily.
The Wired article describes the double-edged sword of e-cigarettes poignantly: “A really appealing, high-quality e-cigarette is going to be a more effective substitute for combustible cigarettes—but it’s also going to be more addictive and appealing to teens.”
Even still, long-term effects of e-cigarettes and vaping are outright unknown, and research supports this lack of determinant answers about human health. Public health advocates return to this point in the wake of the recent vape-related illnesses, saying there is little known about the short- and long-term effects of e-cigarettes and vaping.
Because of this, the American Medical Association has called for a ban on all vaping products. Similarly, the American Cancer Society doesn’t recommend e-cigarettes as a good option to stop smoking and suggests that anyone using e-cigarettes as a smoking alternative should stop “as soon as possible.”
Yet, there’s another wrinkle in this controversial topic. Despite debates on health and consequences of cigarettes versus e-cigarettes and vapes, there exists a strong and prevalent black market for vaping products that is complicating the issue. The current lung illness outbreak seems to be primarily caused by adulterated or contaminated black-market THC products.
Abrams and Fairchild present the following suggestions for lawmakers and regulatory groups to help mitigate the crisis:
- increase the purchasing age from 18 to 21
- tax e-cigarettes, which would put them out of reach for many cost-conscious teens
Both of these methods, they say, worked to curb youth smoking.
- The Food and Drug Administration should also carefully monitor e-cigarettes to make sure the ingredients are safe and that nicotine levels are not dangerously high
There are also cultural ways to address the vaping crisis that do not involve outright banning them, says Michael Siegel, a public health researcher at Boston University. According to him, kids don’t smoke e-cigarettes because they taste good. They do it because vaping is “cool,” and banning products won’t stop kids from wanting to use them or get their hands on them.
Siegel recommends looking to anti- tobacco and cigarette campaigns for effectives methods. Not only can groups tax vaping products and raise the purchase age, but they can evaluate the culture surrounding them. The Truth Campaign “portrayed tobacco companies as manipulative entities that took advantage of teenagers. Not smoking became a cool form of anti-corporate rebellion.”
Maybe this vape-crisis is less about banning vapes and more about adjusting the culture surrounding these products for a more educated public.