Whenever the political left and right agree on an issue, odds are it is beneficial and will help Americans. At least that’s what I once believed. Recent events, however, have encouraged me to rethink this maxim.
Following a spate of vaping-related illnesses, Republican President Donald Trump and two Democratic governors, Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, almost simultaneously announced their intention to ban flavored e-cigarettes. But while some Republicans and Democrats may agree, they have embraced a policy that is detrimental to the general public.
“We can’t allow people to get sick. And we can’t have our kids be so affected,” President Trump remarked. Governor Cuomo concurred and said, “By banning flavored e-cigarettes, we are safeguarding the public health.” Regardless of their motives, these endeavors are poised to backfire spectacularly into a cloud of smoke. Indeed, they are relying on the government’s tried-and-true approach of “do something, even if it is the wrong thing.”
Now that same knee-jerk reaction may spread elsewhere. In fact, there are murmurs that the compulsion to act on e-cigarettes is swirling around Georgia’s Gold Dome. (Editor’s note: On Thursday State Representatives Bonnie Rich (R-Suwanee) and Gerald Greene (R-Cuthbert) announced they would introduce legislation in 2020 addressing e-cigarettes and vaping)
The e-cigarette flavor prohibition announcements came on the heels of the recent vaping illnesses. To date, at least 514 individuals have contracted respiratory illnesses thought to be connected to vaping unregulated THC-containing e-liquids, and 13 have died – one of which was right here in Georgia. Lawmakers are correct that something must be done, but they shouldn’t act until the evidence is fully available. While experts are still researching the issue, there are some interesting discoveries so far.
“The latest findings from the investigation into lung injuries associated with e-cigarette use, or vaping, suggest THC products play a role in the outbreak,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. THC is the primary psychoactive element in marijuana that gives users a high. According to the CDC, in the majority of such cases, the patients admitted to vaping THC products. While a minority reported only using nicotine, many underage patients may have misled medical professionals to hide their THC usage, but federal health authorities didn’t confirm the veracity of their statements through biological or device screening.
Further, the CDC has not suggested that flavored nicotine vaping products were responsible for the outbreak. In short, e-cigarette flavor bans would likely have done nothing to prevent these illnesses. Instead, the prohibitions will likely contribute to negative public health outcomes.
The simple truth is that e-cigarettes are the number one tool smokers use to quit and are far and away a better alternative to combustible cigarettes. Public Health England stated that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than combustibles. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office admitted that e-cigarettes’ effects on the body are similar to nicotine patches and gum, and even the American Cancer Society announced that e-cigarettes present a reduced risk.
E-cigarette flavors give adults another reason to switch from combustible cigarettes. Studies show that adults greatly prefer non-tobacco flavors. However, a flavor ban is essentially a prohibition on e-cigarettes at large since virtually all of the products are flavored. Given what is currently known, governments shouldn’t rush to ban a product that has the potential to help smokers quit and may save lives. Combustible cigarettes claim nearly 500,000 Americans a year. So, vaping offers great life-saving potential.
Beyond these matters, the flavor bans could potentially create the problems that they aim to fix. As America has seen time and again, prohibition doesn’t eliminate the product or demand for it. Rather, an unregulated black market fills the void – bereft of the necessary oversight. While the current outbreak of illnesses appears linked to illegal THC-containing products, unregulated and illegal e-cigarettes could create health crises as well. Harmful additives or contaminants could make their way into products – making people sick.
If the government is serious about achieving better health outcomes, then knee-jerk reactions to e-cigarette flavors aren’t the answer. Instead, the government should act deliberately and consider all of the evidence, or at least wait until it becomes available. Unfortunately, we live in a time in which governments often ban first and asks questions later. Time will tell if Georgia will do the same.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.