The House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy recently held hearings investigating the role of Juul, the country’s largest e-cigarette company, in the alleged “epidemic” of youth vaping sweeping America’s high schools.
It’s understood that such hearings offer members of Congress an opportunity to grandstand with righteous indignation or publicly emote with exaggerated sympathy. But Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, half of the so-called ‘squad,’ managed to outdo the typical pantomime.
Slamming Juul, both agreed “we don’t need more studies,” into e-cigarettes — a refrain heard only from those uninterested in having their prejudices challenged by reality. Beyond displaying a cavalier approach to evidence-based policy, Rep. Tlaib went on to make the extraordinary claim that Juul is “killing” people.
“I’m not going to sit here and allow this committee to be used…to say that e-cigarettes, vaping, JUUL, is not killing our people; they are. It’s leading to health harms; it’s leading to addictions that are going to hurt people,” Rep. Tlaib claimed.
According to the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, the Royal College of Physicians, the American Cancer Society, and numerous public health experts and bodies around the world, smokers who switch exclusively to vaping are reducing their risk of death and disease.
Even the previous head of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, who helped whip up the moral panic around e-cigarettes, said, “If we could switch every adult smoker to an e-cigarette, it would have a profound public health impact.”
Given Tlaib and Pressley’s faith in government-run healthcare, one would hope they’d be aware of what the world’s biggest provider of socialized medicine has to say about e-cigarettes. The U.K’s National Health Service actively promotes vaping as a dramatically safer alternative to smoking, even allowing vape shops to open inside hospitals.
These facts were, however, lost on most Democratic members of the committee, with Wednesday’s hearing focusing on Juul’s marketing practices and the specter of youth nicotine addiction. But it’s not nicotine which kills 480,000 Americans every year, it’s the smoke from combustible cigarettes. The great public health pioneer Michael Russell put it best when he said, “People smoke for nicotine and they die from the tar.”
More than two million Americans smokers have switched from cigarettes to vaping, as have millions more around the world.
Groping for the half-remembered cliches of the 1990s tobacco wars isn’t a sign of bravery in today’s environment, it’s an endorsement of the already dangerous misperceptions around vaping.
According to a study published earlier this year, the proportion of adults who believe e-cigarettes are more dangerous than cigarettes more than tripled from 2012 to 2017. During the same period, the percentage who believed e-cigarettes are just as harmful as cigarettes rose sharply. The real-world consequence of such perceptions is that fewer people are switching away from smoking than would be if they were accurately aware of the benefits.
The germ of truth in the congressional hearing was that in 2018, there was a troubling rise in the number of youth using e-cigarettes. More than 20 percent of high schoolers reported vaping at least once in the past month, with around six percent vaping regularly. It should be noted that just 0.6 percent of kids who had never used any other tobacco product reported vaping regularly. These figures are worrying nonetheless, especially as they will probably rise again this year.
No one wants kids to be vaping or using any other adult product, like alcohol or marijuana. Students who pick up vaping and find themselves dependent on e-cigarettes should be helped and, more importantly, prevented from getting these products in the first place.
The tragedy is that instead of focusing on this point of near-universal agreement, we find ourselves in a position where most public health experts acknowledge vaping is safer than smoking and is effective at helping smokers quit, but may not say so for fear that teens will start vaping.
As Dr. Lynn Kozlowski, professor of community health and health behavior at Buffalo’s School of Public Health put it, “Wanting no child to vape does not justify evasion or misinformation on differential harms of products that they should ‘not use,’ but are using.”
A version of this column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.