Hassett: The building e-cig hysteria

BY NICK HASSETT | APRIL 28, 2014 5:00 AM

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What’s in a name? If you’re a New York City lawmaker, apparently not much.

Brought to you by the body that tried to take away large-sized sodas, the NYC City Council also added e-cigarettes to the list of things banned from public consumption back in 2013, arguing that they can “look identical” to regular cigarettes and thus should be upheld to the same rule. Though the nose knows the difference between a transient puff of vapor and a plume of smoke, it’s easier to apply uniform prohibition than get into the nuances.

On e-cig policies, New York was far ahead of the curve. It was just last week that the Food and Drug Administration outlined its first set of federal rules for the devices (“at last”, in the words of the New York Times: banning sales to minors, mandating health labels and ingredient disclosure, and registering with the FDA among them.

Research on the effects of e-cigarettes is limited. Though organizations such as the CDC have raised concerns about nicotine addiction, the actual vapors produced by the devices are “not likely to approach the health hazards of cigarettes” according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health.

This conclusion was echoed in a Journal of Public Health study, which examined e-cigarettes as a harm-reduction technology for smokers, with surprising results. Not only were e-cigs capable of reducing cigarette cravings, but the effect was not solely due to nicotine. The physical stimuli of using the devices made for a powerful placebo effect, suggesting that the very act of “vaping” is useful for those trying to quit cigarettes.

Despite these promising findings, the news media and health advocates seem to have been stricken with e-cig hysteria. Within the first day of the FDA’s announcement, regulation advocates were already clamoring for more. Stanton Glantz, the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at University of California-San Francisco, said the proposal was “pathetic” and the FDA consistently favored manufacturers over public health.

Others have said the marketing for e-cigs should be restricted the same way it is for cigarettes and that certain flavors, such as bubble gum and grape, should be banned because they might appeal to children.

I dunno. I was a big fan of strawberries growing up. Maybe that should be banned, too, for the sake of the children, of course. And certainly no one over the age of 14 enjoys grape-flavored products, but blackberry is a decidedly adult flavor. That one can stay. But what about raspberry? The sweetly tart taste appeals to all ages. What a conundrum.

Tobacco use is projected to kill 1 billion people in the 21st century. I’ll let that sink in for a second. Is it really appropriate to spend time micromanaging which flavors are allowed in e-cigarettes, which have the potential to reduce that death toll, when their sale will be banned to minors anyway? Are adults not allowed to enjoy flavors, either?

The FDA has taken sensible first steps in regulating e-cigs, which may have more potential as smoking-cessation devices than other forms of nicotine delivery. While claims that they are totally harmless are dubious, vaporizing a solution with few known toxicants is undoubtedly safer than inhaling the noxious mix of carcinogens produced by traditional cigarettes. The FDA should continue down the course it has set; taking its time to research the benefits and hazards of e-cigarettes rather than try to be the flavor police.

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