On Monday, a Los Angeles City Council committee is set to consider an ordinance that would ban the use of electronic cigarettes anywhere that traditional cigarettes are prohibited under the city’s smoke-free air laws. The City Council already unanimously passed a law subjecting e-cigarette sales to the same regulations and restrictions as tobacco products — even though e-cigarettes don’t contain any tobacco.
Not only does latest move to ban e-cigarettes run counter to public opinion, it would also set back public health by implicitly discouraging smokers from seeking safer alternatives.
A national Reason-Rupe poll recently found that 62 percent of Americans e-cigarettes should be allowed in public places, while just 34 percent thought they should be banned in public places. The public sees through the types of unjustified fears espoused in the proposed L.A. ordinance, namely that e-cigarette vapor could harm users and bystanders in a manner similar to secondhand cigarette smoke and that the use of e-cigarettes might “re-normalize” tobacco use.
Concerns that e-cigarettes have similar effects on bystanders as secondhand smoke—something the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health suggests as a rationale for looping e-cigarettes into existing local smoking bans—are questionable. Because e-cigarette “vaping” doesn’t involve combustion, users avoid the thousands of chemicals—some carcinogenic—found in cigarette smoke.
A recent study by researchers at Drexel University’s School of Public Health reviewed over 9,000 observations of e-cigarette use and found no evidence that “vaping” exposes bystanders to harmful levels of contaminants. Similarly, a 2012 peer-reviewed study by Clarkson University’s Center for Air Resources Engineering and Science found no risk to public health from environmental e-cigarette vapor.
The growing body of research suggesting that e-cigarettes are safer for users and a viable pathway to help people quit smoking has an increasing number of academics, public health professionals and anti-smoking advocates calling for policymakers to reject knee-jerk bans on e-cigarettes.
For instance, former U.S. Surgeon General and anti-smoking advocate Richard Carmona recently warned the New York City Council that their attempt to extend the city smoking ban to e-cigarettes would “constitute a giant step backward in the effort to defeat tobacco smoking” and “send the unintended message to smokers that electronic cigarettes are as dangerous as [traditional cigarettes], with the result that many will simply continue to smoke their current toxic products.”
Dr. Joel Nitzkin, former co-chair of the American Association of Public Health Physicians’ Tobacco Control Task Force, said, “e-cigarette vapor presents no threat to non-users that would justify a ban.”
And regarding “re-normalizing” tobacco use, e-cigarettes are hardly a gateway to tobacco; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. A recent study of 1,300 college students by the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center researchers found that only 3 percent of students reported e-cigarettes as the first source of nicotine they'd tried. Lead researcher Dr. Theodore Wagener told HealthDay News last fall that it “didn't seem as though [e-cigarettes] really proved to be a gateway to anything.”
And a report last month from the United Kingdom’s Action on Smoking and Health—a nonprofit started by the Royal College of Physicians that aims to reduce tobacco-related harms—estimated that the 1.3 million current e-cigarette users in the UK are “almost entirely made of current and ex-smokers […] with perhaps as many as 400,000 people having replaced smoking with e-cigarette use.” By and large, the predominant users of e-cigarettes are tobacco smokers seeking to quit and looking for a much safer alternative.
If the City Council wants people to keep smoking, then banning public e-cigarette might help achieve that goal. However, if they’d like to see a reduction in smoking-related harms and improved public health, they should not make it more difficult for smokers to switch to a safer alternative, which would be the practical impact of a “vaping” ban.
Leonard Gilroy is the director of government reform at Reason Foundation (reason.org).