California legislators are proposing a bill to ban the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes in retail stores and vending machines. Lawmakers pushing the legislation say the goal is to reduce the number of kids taking up vaping. Proponents of the ban claim flavors, such as mango and other fruits, are especially alluring to children and have limited appeal to adult smokers who may be trying to switch from traditional cigarettes to a dramatically safer form of nicotine in e-cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent crackdown on e-cigarette flavors stopped short a full-scale ban, recognizing the critical role flavors play in switching adults away from cigarettes. The reality is that the vast majority of adult smokers trying to quit by switching to e-cigarettes use fruit, sweet, and dessert flavors. A growing body of studies and surveys shows adult vapers prefer these flavors and they are a vital part of adults’ efforts to quit smoking traditional cigarettes.
Parents and legislators are understandably concerned by recent FDA figures showing a sharp increase nationally in the number of kids vaping both occasionally and frequently. But if e-cigarette flavors, which have been on the market for almost a decade, are the cause of this most recent rise why did teen vaping in California fall between 2015 and 2017 when just as many of these flavors were available as there are today?
We do not blame the substantially higher rates of teenage drinking or marijuana use on varieties or flavors. No one thinks the solution to high school drinking is to ban craft beer. The key to tackling youth vaping is to enforce laws that are already on the books, which ban retailers from selling e-cigarettes to minors.
One of the unintended consequences of targeting e-cigarette flavors may be to harm public health by limiting adults’ access to products that are proven to be helping them quit smoking cigarettes, which is still “the leading preventable cause of death in the United States” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Across the pond, the United Kingdom (UK) has made a significantly different — and better — policy choice when it comes to e-cigarettes and the role they can play in reducing smoking-related deaths. In the U.K., anti-smoking charities and public health bodies encourage smokers who are thinking about switching to vaping to do so. When the government contemplated a vape tax, it was promptly shot down. Flavor bans were also rejected. The U.K. recognizes the health benefits associated with switching from cigarettes to e-liquids and didn’t want to implement policies that would reduce the number of people giving up smoking for vaping.
California has long been a leader in the field of harm reduction, allowing needle exchanges and legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana, for example. There is no reason the principles of compassion and sound science shouldn’t be applied to smoking, which remains California’s leading cause of preventable deaths.
Before the FDA’s recent rules that some e-liquid flavors can only be sold by vape shops and online outlets with age verification, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb admitted, “If we could switch every adult smoker to an e-cigarette, it would have a profound public health impact.”
California should view its policies on e-cigarettes through the lens of providing as many paths as possible for adults to quit smoking. If smokers switch to e-cigarettes, health outcomes improve. The state can enact using sensible policies aimed at preventing kids from using e-cigarettes without legislating a full-fledged flavors ban that worsens public health.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.