Banning them all will cause far more harm than good
“IT’S TIME to stop vaping,” says Lee Norman, a health official in Kansas. Six people are dead in America, apparently from smoking e-cigarettes. More than 450 have contracted a serious lung disease. So Mr Norman’s advice sounds reasonable. The Centres for Disease Control and the American Medical Association agree: the country’s 11m vapers should quit. A new idea is circulating, that vaping is worse than smoking. On September 11th the Trump administration said it intends to ban non-tobacco flavoured vaping fluid. Some politicians want a broader ban on all e-cigarettes.
The facts have gone up in smoke, as so often happens during health scares. Although more research is needed, the evidence so far suggests that the recent vaping deaths in America did not come from products bought in a shop but from badly made items sold on the street. In five out of six cases, the tainted vaping products were bought illicitly; the other involved liquid bought in a legal cannabis shop in Oregon. One theory is that the vape fluid was mixed with vitamin E. This is an oil—something that should not enter the lungs. If inhaled, oil causes the type of symptoms that the stricken vapers display.
America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is investigating the products involved, rightly refuses to panic. It says vapers should not buy products containing cannabis extract, or those sold on the street. This is sensible. When you buy an unlicensed liquid from an unregulated supplier, you have no idea what you are puffing. This is why governments also discourage people from drinking moonshine spirits, which are sometimes deadly. In Costa Rica, for example, 25 people recently died from imbibing hooch contaminated with methanol. However, just as with alcohol, regulators should draw a distinction between illicit products and the legal, unadulterated sort.
E-cigarettes are not good for you. The vapour that vapers inhale is laced with nicotine, which is addictive. Some of the other chemicals in it may be harmful. But vaping is far less dangerous than smoking tobacco—a uniquely deadly product. If people turn to e-cigarettes as a substitute for the conventional sort, the health benefits are potentially huge. Smoking kills 450,000 Americans every year, and a staggering 7m people worldwide. Anything that weans people off tobacco is likely to save lives.
The big worry about e-cigarettes is that they will create a new generation of nicotine addicts. Some people who have never previously smoked have taken up vaping, including a worrying number of children. In America, for example, one quarter of high-school pupils vape.
This is alarming, and helps explain why so many governments, such as those of Egypt, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan and Brazil, have banned e-cigarettes. They should not. Prohibition usually causes more harm than good. Forbidding e-cigarettes will lead vapers to buy illicit products—the type that are far more likely to poison them. It will also deter many law-abiding smokers from switching to something less deadly.
For these reasons, regulating vaping is wiser than trying to eliminate it. Governments should carefully control what goes into vape fluid, following the example of the European Union, which restricts the amount of nicotine it may contain. America’s FDA, by contrast, seems constantly to change its mind about how to regulate vaping. Governments should also regulate how e-cigarettes are advertised. Marketing aimed at children is obviously unacceptable. So, perhaps, are fruity flavours that appeal especially to young palates. Government health warnings should be clear and measured. Vaping may be a dangerous habit, but it is vastly less deadly than lighting up.