Vaping finds itself in the middle of a media firestorm. Years of suspicion surrounding Big Tobacco have translated into intense criticism and misunderstanding of this new smoke-free tech. Recently, e-cigarettes have found themselves in the court dock, guilty as charged before a proper investigation, let alone a fair trial.
This is doing current vapers and existing smokers a huge disservice. The scare stories are putting smokers who are using a product that is certainly deadly off an alternative that many experts believe is far less harmful, while not risk free.
How did we reach this point? It is understandable, following media coverage that has sensationalized the risks of this new tech. Misleading coverage has created the incorrect picture that it is the nicotine in cigarettes that causes cancer, rather than the combustion and smoke which is actually the case. Sensational news stories have persuaded many ordinary citizens that vape products are highly damaging to health.
This summer has featured a series of news stories about deaths linked to e-cigarette use. As of mid-October, there have been 33 deaths confirmed in the United States that are linked to vaping, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). There have been 1,479 lung-injury cases across the country, a wave that began in June.
The net effect of this overwhelmingly negative coverage, and the alarmist scientific pronouncements about the various “potentially harmful” substances found in e-cigarette vapor, have painted the crazy picture that vaping is “just as bad for you” as smoking real cigarettes. One long-time smoker recently said he would not switch, preferring his “organic” hand-rolled cigarettes as healthier than the new-fangled vaping technology he did not understand.
Most of the samples involved in the deaths and injuries contained THC, one of the active ingredients in cannabis – the drug more often known as marijuana. The CDC concedes that “street” versions of THC vapes bought off drug dealers or friends “are linked to most of the cases and play a major role in the outbreak.”
Some 77% of the lung patients reported using THC products before the onset of their symptoms, and 36% said they only used THC. Since the use of marijuana is still illegal in most U.S. states, and three of the four-largest sites of cases, these numbers are likely to be on the low side. Patients in the majority of states are admitting to a crime when revealing their THC use.
This evidence has been used to paint all e-cigarettes as deadly, building off the negative publicity from teen use. No one is saying that school kids should be using e-cigarettes, in fact all agree their access should be curbed. But in the United States, as in many other nations, it is in fact already illegal for vendors to sell to anyone under 18. The figure rises to 21 in some U.S. states. What is required is better enforcement of the law.
The furor over the health risks surrounding vaping rids adult consumers, particularly smokers, from a sensible alternative to cigarettes. The truth is that the science is still out on the long-term health risks of vaping; the health risks of cigarettes are well-known.
The CDC notes that “e-cigarettes expose users to fewer harmful chemicals than burned cigarettes.” That’s because conventional cigarettes are “extraordinarily dangerous,” the health body notes, “killing half of all people who smoke long-term.”
After the rash of negative publicity spread to Asia, India in September banned the production, import and sale of vaping products. The world’s second-most-populous nation joined Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand in banning vaping outright.
In the United States, Massachusetts in September banned the sale of all e-cigarettes for four months. The states of New York, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington responded by banning flavored e-cigarettes, a move that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also considering. Walmart and Walgreens have stopped stocking e-cigarettes altogether.
Cigarette smoking is responsible for 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, per the CDC, and more than 7 million deaths worldwide.
That means that since the first outbreak of vaping-related cases in the United States, in the last week of June, a total of 138,461 people in the United States have died from smoking. Since then, 2 million people have died worldwide.
This goes unreported, while the media focuses on 33 vaping-linked deaths that appear to be connected to the misuse of illegal street products. The answer to address these concerns should be to bring illicit e-cigarette use above board, rather than driving more users into the black market by banning vaping products.
The misleading skewing of the media coverage, feeding into political grandstanding, creates a deadly misunderstanding. When asked whether e-cigarettes are less-harmful than traditional cigarettes, 53% of the public disagreed, in a 2019 poll from Morning Consult. Only 24% agreed. Another poll from Kaiser shows that 49% of respondents support banning all e-cigarettes, flavored or not. These figures appear linked to the current media-induced panic – 59% of adults say they have heard “a lot” about illnesses related to e-cigarettes and vaping.
Public Health England, the CDC-equivalent in that country, has taken a totally different approach to U.S. regulators and lawmakers. It concludes that “vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking,” with at least 95% fewer harmful substances, and “negligible risk” to bystanders. Yet it finds that more than half of English smokers either falsely believe that vaping is as harmful as smoking or don’t know.
Nicotine, it notes, causes “little if any” of the harm in smoking. With youth smoking in the United Kingdom declining in an encouraging way, “the evidence does not support the concern that e-cigarettes are a route into smoking among young people.”
It encourages all smokers to switch to vaping. It also notes that British vaping numbers have plateaued at 3 million, with many users put off by the negative coverage and misleading information swirling about e-cigarettes.
This misinformation is the greatest current threat to health concerning vaping. Public Health England encourages the National Health Service to make sure e-cigarettes as well as other nicotine replacement therapies be put on sale in hospital shops. Vaping policy from lawmakers should support smokers looking to quit – not ban vaping and drive its illegal use underground.
The public, smokers, lawmakers and doctors should not leap to conclusions, and should resist the puritanical urge to ban vaping products. Yet this is exactly what is happening. Governments that in some cases own major stakes in tobacco companies are perfectly willing to let consumers purchase a product that definitely kills, while banning a potentially life-saving alternative.
Professor John Newton, the director for health improvement at Public Health England, warns the public and policymakers off a murderous mistake.
“It would be tragic if thousands of smokers who could quit with the help of an e-cigarette are being put off due to false fears about their safety,” Newton concludes.