Vaping products can save lives, but not without the permission of one of America’s most powerful federal agencies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Led by Scott Gottlieb, the FDA is on the cusp of effectively banning flavored vaping products, despite the potential for said products to transition smokers away from traditional cigarettes. After repeatedly decrying the “epidemic” of teenage vaping, Axios reported that Commissioner Gottlieb, “has presented senior White House staff with his plan to effectively ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in convenience stores throughout the United States, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.” This bizarre ban would unravel years’ worth of progress in harm reduction, taking away life-saving products from millions of smokers.
Commissioner Gottlieb has rightly sounded the alarm on the dangers of cigarettes, noting that, “the overwhelming amount of death and disease attributable to tobacco is caused by addiction to cigarettes — the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users."
It’s difficult to reconcile this quote with his zealous crusade to all-but-ban vaping products, which have been proven effective time and time again for weaning smokers from their deadly addictions. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine assigned nearly a thousand middle-aged smokers to various smoking cessation tools (i.e. e-cigarettes, nicotine gum, patches) and found that e-cigarettes were nearly doubly as effective as traditional nicotine replacement therapy. And since e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than cigarettes, transitioning from the later to the former makes for a dramatic health improvement from day 1. This health improvement would lower healthcare costs for consumers and taxpayers, by reducing the burden of future health care expenses on insurance premiums and Medicare and Medicaid expenditures.
Flavors are a selling point for adults of all ages considering e-cigarettes, yet to Commissioner Gottlieb, more exotic flavors (such as mango and creme brulee) only exacerbate rising youth use. But the nightmare scenario of teens getting hooked en-mass on e-cigarettes via flavors is simply not supported by any evidence. According to survey data cited by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (which supports banning flavors), only 3.3 percent of teenagers that have never smoked reported wanting to try e-cigarettes, flavored or otherwise.
Sure, teenagers may find mango more appealing than tobacco flavors...as do most people. In 2016, the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association surveyed more than 27,000 e-cigarette users of all ages and found that nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of respondents “credited tasty flavors with helping them give up tobacco.” The Commissioner believes it intuitive than teenagers care far more about flavors than adults do, but this assumption falls apart under closer examination. The Department of Health and Human Services notes that, “Nearly 90 percent of adult smokers began smoking before age 18,” which likely wouldn’t be the case if teenagers didn’t care for the taste of plain tobacco.
Instead of singling out e-cigarettes for restriction and elimination, Commissioner Gottlieb should make it easier for smokers to get products that can save their lives. The FDA is right to try to keep these products out of the hands of youth, but a heavy-handed approach would reduce access for all. As with alcohol and conventional tobacco products, agencies could reduce teenage access by enhancing age verification procedures and punishing businesses that don’t carefully check identification.
In addition to increasing access to e-cigarettes, the FDA should examine how they can reform the whole regulatory process. Additional lives can be saved via new smoking cessation medication, but innovation continues to be stalled under the yoke of an onerous drug approval process. Median times for drug approval have been on the upswing for the past couple of years, and drugs on the “fast-track” have to sit on the sidelines for at least six months before being approved. Instead of risk-aversion and fear-mongering, the FDA should wholeheartedly embrace therapies and products that save lives. The all-encompassing agency can save countless lives, but only if it allows innovators to bring their revolutionary products to market.
Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.