Revising its nicotine vaping restrictions would allow Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services to correct a mistake and reduce the number of smoking deaths.
In Sept. 2021, Utah banned the sale of e-cigarettes with a nicotine concentration higher than 3%, mostly in response to the rise in youth vaping. Most of the vaping market consists of e-cigarettes that have nicotine in the 4% to 6% range. Now, Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is considering changes as part of a settlement resulting from a legal challenge by the Utah Vapor Business Association.
The proposed rule change would allow the sale of any e-cigarette authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), regardless of its nicotine strength. The FDA has already approved several e-cigarettes for sale that exceed Utah’s nicotine cap.
Utah’s caps on nicotine in e-cigarettes limit the public health potential of e-cigarettes, which can be used to help smokers switch to safer options because e-cigarettes don’t provide the nicotine that a regular cigarette can deliver.
A study published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research found that smokers who tried switching to vaping were far more likely to quit cigarettes when using a higher-nicotine e-cigarette than those of a lower strength. Research also suggests that limiting vapers to lower-nicotine vapes can lead them to vape more to get their desired nicotine.
Some fear revising Utah’s nicotine limits could induce more young people to vape. Fortunately, there’s little reason to suggest this would be the case. Youth vaping has fallen by almost 50% across the country since 2019 despite 48 states having no limit on nicotine in e-cigarettes. Ensuring access to safer, effective alternatives for adult smokers need not and has not come at the expense of reducing youth vaping.
There are around 170,000 smokers in Utah, and the state sees 1,300 smoking-related deaths each year. Whether intended or not, nicotine caps for e-cigarettes encourage smokers to continue using combustible cigarettes rather than switching to better alternatives. Utah’s rule is especially nonsensical given that no nicotine limits exist on other harm-reduction products like nicotine pouches.
Utah has an opportunity to reduce the number of smoking deaths by revising restrictions on nicotine vapes while informing the public about the existence of these safer alternatives. E-cigarettes are safer than cigarettes because while nicotine may be addictive, it’s the burning of tobacco and the toxicity of the resulting smoke that makes cigarettes so lethal. Because there is no burning tobacco, e-cigarettes are dramatically less harmful. As public health researcher Michael Russell once said, “People smoke for the nicotine, but they die from the tar.”
E-cigarettes aren’t just safer than traditional cigarettes; according to the most exhaustive reviews of the scientific evidence, they’re more effective in helping people quit smoking than nicotine replacement therapies, such as nicotine patches. If every smoker in America switched to vaping, the country could avoid 6.6 million premature deaths, according to a study in Tobacco Control. And for Utah, encouraging more smokers to switch to safer alternatives could dramatically reduce the state’s current annual 1,300 smoking-related deaths.
Reforming Utah’s unnecessary and outdated nicotine cap would save lives and accelerate the demise of traditional cigarettes. DHHS should be applauded for re-examining this issue, and state regulators should embrace the potential of vaping to improve public health.