Op-ed: Blowing smoke on e-cigs

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, May 11, 2016 1:22pm
  • Opinion

Down through all the millennia that mankind has smoked tobacco, no one would have believed (or even imagined) that a battery-powered contraption with no tobacco would one day be considered a tobacco product.

We’ve long had smokeless tobacco; now we have tobaccoless tobacco. This conceptual breakthrough is the work of federal bureaucrats who are bringing the regulatory hammer down on e-cigarettes in a misbegotten extension of the war on smoking.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued new rules so onerous that they will likely suppress the manufacture of e-cigarettes and kill off small companies making them. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell hailed the action as “an important step in the fight for a tobacco-free generation” — never mind, of course, that e-cigarettes are tobacco-free.

The problem that regulators and so-called public-health advocates have with e-cigarettes is that, unlike nicotine gum or patches (which have proven ineffective as substitutes for smoking), they are a simulacrum of actual cigarettes. People puff on them and emit clouds of aerosol. For all that the experts want to reduce smoking, they can’t abide the idea that people might do it by consuming nicotine in a pantomime of old-fashioned smoking.

It is a strange country that is simultaneously moving to legalize marijuana and to crack down on vaping. But here we are.

There is no doubt that cigarettes are a great cause of human misery; they kill almost 500,000 people a year in the U.S. This is why e-cigarettes, with their potential to diminish smoking, could be a boon to public health.

They deliver nicotine without the truly harmful part of cigarettes, the tar and chemicals. Regulators purport to fear what is still unknown about e-cigarettes, while ignoring all the evidence that they are vastly safer than analog cigarettes (if cigarettes were only nicotine, they wouldn’t be so problematic). It’s like trying to prove to environmentalists who hate all fossil fuels that fracking is safe.

The FDA is evidently operating on the basis of a regulator’s reverse Hippocratic oath: First, do harm to a burgeoning industry — then hope to find some evidentiary justification for it at some later date.

The new rules are crafted so that every vaping product currently on the market will have to go through an onerous FDA review process. Any new products will have to do the same. The American Vaping Association maintains that submitting an application will cost more than $1 million and take more than 1,700 hours. The regulatory burden will swamp small companies that lack the resources to pour into compliance costs. (The big tobacco companies, in contrast, will be fine.)

The small firms have driven innovation in e-cigarettes. The products have gotten better, with more variety, since their introduction in 2007. That’s manifestly a good thing. The more satisfying e-cigarettes are, and the more they replicate the real smoking experience, the more likely it is that smokers will switch over, or at least use fewer cigarettes.

The highly respected Royal College of Physicians in Britain gets the logic. It issued a report emphasizing the enormous promise of e-cigarettes, which it estimates are 5 percent as dangerous as the real thing. An authority who worked on the report explained to The New York Times that e-cigarettes “have the potential to help half or more of all smokers get off cigarettes. That’s a huge health benefit, bigger than just about any medical intervention.”

The U.S. is rejecting that common-sense approach to harm reduction. It is against vaping no matter how safe it is or how many people it might coax into giving up smoking.

The famous line attributed to Mark Twain is that nothing is as easy as quitting smoking — he’s done it thousands of times. Of course, Twain didn’t have the option of vaping. If the FDA has anything to say about it, neither will anyone else.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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