E-Cigarette Flavors are Good for Public Health. Why is the FDA Cracking Down on Them?
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E-Cigarette Flavors are Good for Public Health. Why is the FDA Cracking Down on Them?

The FDA's actions point toward further increasing the burden on e-cigarettes, while failing to embrace their full potential to save lives.

Next week, the Food and Drug Administration will announce a ban on the sale of most e-cigarette flavors in tens of thousands of convenience stores and gas stations, according to the Washington Post.

It will be one of a series of measures to tackle the alleged “epidemic” levels of youth vaping in America’s high schools. Groups like Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and now apparently the FDA have singled out so-called “kid-appealing” e-cigarette flavors like fruits, sweets, and desserts as one of the leading causes of a spike in teen vaping over the past year.

According to e-cigarette industry critics, these flavors are explicitly targeting kids, recruiting a new generation of nicotine addicts, and are of little interest or help to adult smokers looking to kick their habit by switching to vaping.

But a report released today by Reason Foundation shows that despite a wave of hysterical media stories to the contrary, surveys and academic research consistently shows fruit, sweet, and dessert flavored e-cigarettes are the most popular choices among adult vapers. These flavors are now more often than not the first choice for smokers looking to make the switch to vaping. There is also a growing body of research suggesting not only are non-tobacco flavors the most popular options with adult vapers; they assist in smoking cessation. While it’s true that flavors can play a role in the decision of some youth to vape, the available research suggests it is one of many factors and often not the leading factor.

Nevertheless, on the back of new data showing a sudden rise in high school students who have vaped at least once in the past 30 days, the FDA is scrambling to do something, and restricting flavors appears to be it regardless of the impact it might have on adults trying to quit smoking. This is also in spite of the fact that industry experts have long recognized that bans on e-cigarette flavors or access to flavors benefit the traditional tobacco industry.Big Tobacco is facing the biggest threat to its traditional business in 50 years, and it’s not coming from the federal government or public health campaigners — it’s coming from e-cigarette companies. Removing dramatically safer nicotine options like flavored e-cigarettes from convenience stores and gas stations, while tobacco cigarettes can be sold just as freely as before, is a defeat for public health and gives an unfair and unwarranted advantage to traditional cigarettes over e-cigarettes.

Cutting through the hyperbole and fearmongering that permeates the e-cigarette debate, one thing should be made clear: E-cigarettes are a harm reduction product, offering smokers the nicotine they desire without the harmful smoke, which results in the deaths of 480,000 Americans a year. There is a clear consensus that vaping is vastly less harmful than smoking, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has himself acknowledged that if every smoker in America switched to vaping, it would be a significant win for public health.

FDA is more than capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. The policy choice is not between preventing kids from vaping and helping adults quit smoking. Rather, the opportunity for the FDA is to use its authority to limit kids’ access to e-cigarettes while maximizing their potential to get smokers to quit. For e-cigarettes to be successful, they must be available in the forms and flavors that adult smokers actually find attractive and useful, and according to the evidence we have to date this includes a wide variety of non-tobacco flavors.

FDA is making the correct decision in not banning e-cigarette flavors outright. Requiring better age verifications for online sales and punishing retailers who sell to e-cigarettes to kids are welcome steps forward to address the problem of youth use. But unfortunately, for now, all of the FDA’s actions point toward further increasing the burden on e-cigarettes, while failing to embrace their full potential to save lives.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner

Guy Bentley is director of consumer freedom at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.