Point/Counterpoint: What should be done about e-cigs?

BY DI STAFF | MAY 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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The Iowa Legislature passed a ban on the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors last week, and the Food and Drug Administration recently announced that it will begin to regulate e-cigs. Health data, however, seem to suggest that e-cigs are less harmful than conventional cigarettes.

Regulate e-cigs like tobacco

It’s time for the knives to come out when it comes to the relationship between the government and the e-cigarette industry.

It’s very clear at this point that e-cigs are bad for you. Clinical Cancer Research, a medical journal focused on studying the disease, found that e-cig vapors affect bronchial cells in ways similar to tobacco smoke from a regular cigarette. The peer reviewed journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research is also about to publish a study which notes that e-cigs with high battery power can produce levels of carcinogens such as formaldehyde similar to conventional cigarettes. While certainly less injurious that a traditional cigarette, to suggest that putting an e-cig in your mouth is significantly healthier or even benign is simply absurd.

Now, to ban e-cigs would be an unconscionable violation of American’s freedom to put whatever they want in their body, no matter how detrimental. Clearly, Prohibition didn’t stop whiskey from flowing, and the War on Drugs isn’t stemming Americans from shoving toxins into their bodies. However, we as a society can still regulate the inevitable usages of these controlled substances in a way that can both minimize their prevalence and provide sources of revenue for municipalities to improve themselves.

The basic attitude we should adopt towards e-cigs is the same one we have towards cigarettes. You shouldn’t be able to sell them to minors, you should put warning labels on them to inform people of the incredible health risks posed by using this product, and you should tax the hell out of it. So far, taxation of e-cigs is mostly nonexistent, but in places in which it has been implemented, it has shown itself to not only be a deterrent to purchasing these products but also a gargantuan source of revenue. Minnesota’s e-cig tax is expected to net the state $1.6 billion in the coming year.

If Americans want to idiotically inhale carcinogens from an e-cig, that’s fine. But why not try to minimize this occurrence while also providing the government with money to spend on badly underfunded public services?

Matthew Byrd

Incentivize e-cig consumption

Bear with me while I invoke Malcolm Gladwell:

Way, way back in The Tipping Point, Gladwell examined ways to potentially curb the incidence of smoking, and he came to the conclusion that the best course of action is not to focus our efforts on stopping kids from trying smoking — the goal of rigorous restrictions on access and limits on advertising — but rather to reduce the “stickiness” of cigarettes. In other words, it’s not the number of people trying cigarettes that we should be concerned with but the number of people who become addicted to smoking.

Essentially, we have an opportunity with e-cigarettes to administer nicotine through a less toxic medium in smaller doses to reduce the incidence of smoking, a very desirable public-health outcome.

So what we ought to do is enact regulations that do two things: (1) incentivize buying e-cigs over regular cigarettes and (2) limit the nicotine content to reduce the incidence of addiction.

This obviously means that the heavy excise taxation for which the Byrdman has advocated above would likely be counterproductive — e-cigs shouldn’t be treated like cigarettes. Instead, they should be taxed less than cigarettes to economically incentivize the purchase of the former. The most important regulation would be the establishment of a maximum nicotine limit.

As for expanded rules limiting advertising and flavors, they may also be counterproductive by virtue of their erosion of the competitive regulatory and technological advantages of e-cigs.

In conjunction with the establishment of relatively lax e-cig regulations, excise taxes on cigarettes should be raised and regulations should be tightened further. Any tightening of e-cig regulations could be revisited later when the results of my weaning project are better known.

I’m not an economist or anything, but it seems like a short-term embrace of the e-cig could win a major public-health battle.

Zach Tilly

Wait to act on e-cigs

With all the recent furor over e-cigarettes, many are calling for the devices to be treated the same as cigarettes under the law and regulated accordingly. Though this keeps things pretty simple, adopting such a policy would be too restrictive on a budding industry that has potential to reduce the harm done by traditional tobacco.

The truth is that e-cigarettes are nowhere near the same as regular cigarettes. The National Institutes of Health, the Journal of Public Health, and other medical publications have examined the contents of e-cigs and found they don’t contain the same harmful toxins found in smoked cigarettes.

Some of the things you won’t find in e-cigs? Tar, ash, carbon monoxide, and dozens of other materials produced by combustion. You’d be hard pressed to find someone to say that e-cigarettes are healthy, but when viewed as an alternative and as a way to quit smoking, the benefits are clear.

The argument that e-cigs should be banned from public use the same as cigarettes due to “secondhand vapor” effects is also not supported by the science. A study conducted in 2013 using three of the most popular e-cig brands compared with tobacco smoke found the amount of vapor exhaled into the air was about one-tenth the amount produced by cigarettes. It’s probably more dangerous to breath in air in a big city.

Not to say we should throw caution to the wind. A little bit of wariness on e-cigarettes is healthy, especially for the FDA, which has to balance the public clamoring for regulations with what’s fair for a growing industry. We have time to figure out what exactly the hazards are with e-cigs, and we shouldn’t make a comprehensive policy until we know them.

Nick Hassett

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