Critics of the vaping industry portray the flavors that the Food and Drug Administration wants to ban from stores that admit minors as evidence of a conspiracy to hook the youth of America on nicotine. The FDA itself has a more sophisticated understanding of the market but is still far too willing to sacrifice the interests of adult smokers in the name of fighting an "epidemic" of underage e-cigarette use.
"We recognize (e-cigarettes) as a viable alternative for adult smokers who want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine without all the harmful effects of combustion," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC last month. "If we could switch every adult smoker to an e-cigarette, it would have a profound public health impact."
That's because vaping is far less hazardous than smoking -- on the order of 95 percent less hazardous, according to an estimate endorsed by Public Health England. Gottlieb is therefore on solid ground when he says, as he did in a speech last September, that "the public health impact" of switching smokers to safer sources of nicotine "can dwarf anything else we're able to accomplish in any reasonable stretch of time."
It follows that making e-cigarettes less appealing and less accessible has a public health cost, measured in smoking-related diseases and deaths that otherwise would not have occurred. Yet that is what the FDA's new restrictions on e-cigarettes, which limit the flavor options in most stores to menthol, mint and tobacco, will do.
Rather than enforce the minimum purchase age, which is 18 under federal law and higher in some states, the FDA is decreeing that the flavors teenagers tend to prefer can be sold only by vape shops, tobacconists and online outlets with age verification. That rule is akin to prohibiting supermarkets and convenience stores from selling Mike's Hard Lemonade or Jack Daniel's Country Cocktails because you're worried that some cashiers will fail to card people who buy them.
In both cases, we are talking about products that are indisputably popular among adults, even while they may also be popular among teenagers. In a recently completed online survey of more than 69,000 adult vapers, just 16 percent identified tobacco, menthol or mint as flavors they used most often; the vast majority preferred supposedly juvenile fruit and dessert flavors.
A recent survey by the website Vaping360 focused on Juul, which is the leading e-cigarette brand in the U.S., accounting for more than 70 percent of the market. Mango was the most popular flavor by far, named by nearly half of the respondents.
Yet the industry's detractors see fruit flavors as inherently suspect. The New York Times reports that "health advocates point to the packaging and youth appeal of a variety of flavors, including chicken and waffles, rocket Popsicle and unicorn milk as well as fruity tastes like mango."
The choice of examples is revealing, and not just because adult vapers demonstrably enjoy "fruity tastes like mango." The other flavors cited by the Times are produced by companies that make e-liquid for "open" vaping systems, the refillable, customizable rigs that represent a small share of the market and according to the FDA are not favored by teenagers.
Surveys of former smokers find that flavor variety plays an important role in the process of switching to vaping. The FDA itself has acknowledged "the role that flavors ... may play in helping some smokers switch to potentially less harmful forms of nicotine delivery."
It is hardly a leap to suggest that sharply limiting flavor variety in the vast majority of retail outlets will make some smokers less likely to switch -- a point that Gottlieb acknowledges. "In order to close the on-ramp to e-cigarettes for kids," he told the Times, "we have to put in place some speed bumps for adults."
By why should adult smokers pay, potentially with their lives, for the carelessness of convenience store clerks? The moral logic of the trade-off demanded by the FDA escapes me.