The Michigan Supreme Court recently declined to reintroduce Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency ban on flavored e-cigarettes, which had been blocked by lower courts. With the federal government targeting e-cigarettes in recent weeks, a lot has changed since Whitmer’s original ban in September. It would be wise for Michigan’s leaders to step back and seek more effective ways to reduce youth vaping.
While the spike in youth vaping over recent years is concerning, when it comes to public health, banning all e-cigarette flavors is likely to cause more harm than good to public health since it would deny adult smokers access to a safer alternative to cigarettes.
Unfortunately, the current debate about e-cigarettes, which do not contain tobacco, is terribly confused. A Morning Consult poll finds almost two-thirds of Americans believe – incorrectly – that vaping is just as dangerous, or even more dangerous, than smoking traditional combustible cigarettes. This is simply wrong, and every credible research study shows the opposite to be the case. For example, according to modeling conducted by Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, 6.6 million cigarette smokers would live “substantially longer” lives if they vaped instead of smoking cigarettes. The research found smokers could live a combined 86 million more years by switching to e-cigarettes.
More recently, the confusion has been focused on the outbreak of approximately 2,000 cases of lung illnesses and 55 deaths being associated with vaping. But these deaths and illnesses are not being caused by using legal nicotine-containing e-cigarette products you can buy in stores, but by cannabis vaping products mostly purchased on the black market. Examining lung tissue from 29 patients across 10 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered 100 percent contained vitamin E acetate, which is often used as a cutting agent by drug dealers. But, crucially, vitamin E acetate is not found in any legal e-cigarette.
Unfortunately, the federal government has joined the overreaction to youth vaping. The Trump administration announced last week it is banning the sale of all non-tobacco and menthol e-cigarette flavors in so-called ‘closed system’ products. These include the market leader Juul, which has already withdrawn its fruit and sweet flavors and other e-cigarettes often found in convenience stores. President Trump also signed a bill raising the age to buy tobacco products to 21.
To a large extent, Gov. Whitmer’s concerns have been answered by these federal actions. The most popular products used by young people have been banned and the tobacco age has been raised. What hasn’t been banned yet are flavors sold at specialist vape shops, which are overwhelmingly used by adults trying to quit smoking.
A central problem with banning all e-cigarette flavors is that numerous studies show adults who use flavors are more successful at quitting smoking than those who don’t. According to researchers at Yale University’s School of Public Health, banning e-cigarette flavors while keeping cigarettes on the market would increase smoking. And a Wells Fargo survey found more than 70 percent of tobacco retailers say removing e-cigarette flavors actually boosts their sales of traditional cigarettes.
Any additional prohibition would only drive the market for vaping products underground. This risks driving many adult vapers back to cigarettes and young people to the black market, where the vaping products causing lung illnesses are being sold. Michigan doesn’t intend to create lucrative black markets for e-cigarettes, force smokers back to traditional cigarettes, or cause the state’s vaping businesses to close. Nevertheless, these would be the unintended consequences of Gov. Whitmer’s push for prohibition.
Hopefully, the court’s nixing of the governor’s emergency ban leads the state to a wiser, more effective long-term public health strategy. In Europe, there is not an epidemic of youth vaping. E-cigarettes can quickly enter the market, and thousands of different flavors are sold there. Sensible regulation and education like that would be a far more effective way for Michigan to stem the tide of youth vaping.
This column originally appeared in the Lansing State Journal.