Yesterday, presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to ban the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes should he win the White House this November. The former mayor of New York City says he’d go further than the Trump administration’s recent ban on most e-cigarette flavors.
Direct the FDA to prohibit the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes, as well as all menthol-flavored tobacco products. He will also direct the FDA to speed up its review of e-cigarettes.
Push to reduce the amount of nicotine in traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and other tobacco products to non-addictive levels.
Bloomberg has long been an opponent of tobacco use, but his criticism of e-cigarettes appears to be capable of eclipsing his efforts to reduce smoking. Bloomberg’s passion for prohibition was given fresh impetus last year with new data showing another sharp rise in the number of teens experimenting with vaping, spurring him to spend $160 million on a nationwide campaign to ban flavored vaping products.
But when questioned on his reasoning for e-cigarette prohibition, Bloomberg is often at odds with the facts. In an interview with CBS News last year, for example, Bloomberg curiously claimed vaping could reduce a child’s IQ by 10 to 15 points. Questioned on the basis for, or evidence to back up, this extraordinary allegation Bloomberg was stumped. His fellow panelist on the interview, President of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) Matt Myers, stepped into the breach to help transition away from Bloomberg’s dubious claim by simply saying, “These things are hard to measure.”
Should Bloomberg get his way, it could represent the most significant federal prohibition since the Volstead Act of 1919. The flavors Bloomberg wants to ban comprised 80 percent of the e-cigarette market in 2019, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Pamela Kaufman.
What makes Bloomberg’s prohibition especially insidious is that e-cigarettes are not just for pleasure but are an innovation that actively promotes public health. Almost 500,000 Americans die every year from a smoking-related disease, a death toll that eclipses that of other substances, such as opioids or alcohol. But Bloomberg, like many other vaping critics, fails to acknowledge the potential for lowering tobacco-related harms by transitioning adult smokers to vaping, which numerous studies show to be significantly safer than smoking.
For example, according to a study by Georgetown University Medical Center, 6.6 million premature deaths could be prevented over 10 years if every adult smoker switched to vaping. That’s because, according to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the health risks of e-cigarettes are unlikely to exceed five percent of the risks of combustible cigarettes
Bloomberg’s flavor ban is a problem, in part, because studies have shown that flavors are not just more popular with adults than tobacco flavor, but that they’re more effective in helping smokers switch. E-cigarettes are also almost twice as effective at traditional nicotine replacement therapies (NRT).
Not only would Bloomberg’s ban harm adults who have switched away from smoking and those who could yet do so, but it also wouldn’t even solve the problem it seeks to address. A frequent claim is that vaping flavors are uniquely appealing to children and are driving youth vaping rates.
But according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sweet flavors rank a distant third in terms of the reasons young people try vaping. By far and away, the top reason for youth use, was curiosity, followed by peer influences, with just 22 percent saying flavors were one of the reasons they tried vaping.
The prospect of prohibition presents additional dangers. The outbreak of lung illnesses and deaths associated with bootleg THC vape cartridges presents a classic case of the harms of prohibition. Reason Foundation’s Jacob Rich and Cato’s Jeff Miron recently demonstrated the prevalence of vaping-related illnesses is largest in states where marijuana has not yet been legalized.
Professor Michael Siegel of Boston University’s School of Public Health fears that if flavored e-cigarettes are banned, and youth still want to experiment with vapor products, many could turn to black-market THC vapes, which have been responsible for more than 50 deaths and thousands of vaping-related lung illnesses.
“The reality is that bans on flavored e-cigarette use are what will actually undermine our progress in reducing youth tobacco use,” Siegel writes. “And at the same time, they will result in more youth using black market products such as THC vape carts, putting them at a real risk of severe illness.”
In the past 100 years, America has experimented with major prohibitions, such as those of drugs and alcohol. Both produced the same results: black markets and bootleg products, corruption, violence, and even deaths. Prohibition produced a net increase in societal harm.
Michael Bloomberg may not have learned these lessons, but it’s incumbent for more responsible policymakers to endeavor not to repeat mistakes of past, especially with a product which, if allowed to thrive, could help make the traditional cigarette obsolete and produce significantly positive public health outcomes for millions of people.