Congressional Hearing on E-Cigarettes Descends Into a Moral Panic
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Commentary

Congressional Hearing on E-Cigarettes Descends Into a Moral Panic

The hearing was littered with scientific inaccuracies and scaremongering.

Today, the House Energy and Commerce Committee heard testimony from executives of the country’s largest e-cigarette companies. Unfortunately, the hearing was littered with ad hominems, scientific inaccuracies, and scaremongering.

It was to be expected that the CEOs of these companies would receive tough questions about the rise in youth e-cigarette use. But in their zeal to condemn industry leaders, several members of Congress made factually inaccurate statements when it came to the risks of e-cigarettes.

The most egregious inaccuracies came from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the chairman of the committee, who claimed e-cigarettes “kill people” and that no one who sells e-cigarettes could be considered a person of integrity.

“I heard all of you over and over say you are responsible men, men of integrity. That is not true,” Rep. Pallone said to the CEOs. “If you want to be men of integrity, responsible men, you would not be selling this product.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of killing people, e-cigarette manufacturers are saving lives every single day. According to researchers at Georgetown University, “up to 6.6 million cigarette smokers will live substantially longer if cigarette smoking is replaced by vaping over a 10-year period.” Such a transition would represent one of the most significant public health gains in the past 100 years.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) claimed we don’t know that e-cigarettes are safer than combustible cigarettes. Even some of the harshest critics of e-cigarettes would refrain from making such a statement. The risks of e-cigarettes are unlikely to exceed five percent of that of cigarettes, according to an evidence review conducted by Public Health England (PHE). In 2016, the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) said, with its highest level of confidence, that smokers who switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes reduce their exposure to harmful and potentially harmful chemicals.

Several members tentatively acknowledged evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that the outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths is overwhelmingly associated with the use of THC products containing vitamin E acetate. Yet many appeared to conflate the THC market with the nicotine market.

It is precisely this kind of conflation by politicians and media outlets that have produced a situation where most Americans public believe e-cigarettes, not THC cartridges, are responsible for these deaths and illnesses. According to a Morning Consult poll published on Feb. 5, 66 percent of adults believe e-cigarettes such as Juul are responsible for the outbreak.

At no point in the hearing was it acknowledged that e-cigarettes had been conclusively proven to be safer than combustible cigarettes. Neither was there any recognition of the millions of Americans who have already quit smoking by switching to vaping or that the scientific literature increasingly shows e-cigarettes to be more effective than traditional nicotine replacement therapies at helping smokers quit.

There were repeated claims that the country’s youth is facing a nicotine addiction crisis. Yet, just last week, New York University published an analysis of 2018 data showing 86.2 percent of teens had not vaped in the past 30 days, and only 3.6 percent vaped on 20 days or more.

The availability of fruity or sweet flavors is often blamed for the rise in youth vaping. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC), own survey data shows curiosity is the number one reason why young people try vaping, with flavors coming a distant third.

There are 34 million adult smokers in America, and smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death, with 480,000 Americans dying every year due to smoking-related disease. When congressional leaders focus only on the costs and ignore the benefits of reduced-risk nicotine products, they are entrenching the traditional cigarette market.

E-cigarette sales have slowed significantly since August of last year. At the same time, the decline in sales of combustible cigarettes has moderated.

If members of Congress continue to wrongly equate e-cigarettes with combustible cigarettes or, even worse, pursue the total prohibition of these vaping products, they would not be foiling Big Tobacco. Rather they’d be saving it from industry-wide disruption.

Guy Bentley is the director of consumer freedom research at Reason Foundation. Bentley's research focuses on the taxation and regulation of nicotine, tobacco, alcohol, and food.