The CDC Is to Blame For More Americans Than Ever Being Misinformed About Vaping and E-Cigarettes
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Commentary

The CDC Is to Blame For More Americans Than Ever Being Misinformed About Vaping and E-Cigarettes

"Restricting access and appeal among less harmful vaping products out of an abundance of caution while leaving deadly combustible products on the market does not protect public health."

Months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified THC cartridges as the main suspect in cases of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths, more Americans than ever mistakenly believe e-cigarettes such as Juul are responsible for the outbreak.

The spate of illnesses, which began last year, is overwhelmingly associated with the use of THC cartridges cut with vitamin E acetate, which, when inhaled, can cause severe damage and, in some cases, be fatal. The CDC explicitly warns consumers not to buy THC vapor cartridges, especially from informal sources like friends or drug dealers.

But a Morning Consult poll released Feb. 5. shows just 28 percent of adults believe tainted THC products are responsible for the vaping-related deaths while 66 percent of adults incorrectly blame e-cigarettes. The percentage of adults who consider e-cigarettes to be “very harmful” is up to 65 percent, an increase of seven percentage points since September 2019.

This misperception about e-cigarettes could have severe repercussions. Morning Consult’s results are especially worrying because, in January, the CDC changed its advice to consumers and is no longer advising adults to stop using e-cigarettes if they wish to avoid severe lung injuries.

In fact, most public health groups view e-cigarettes as an important tool that can be used to help people quit smoking traditional cigarettes. From the Royal College of Physicians to the American Cancer Society, almost all public health bodies acknowledge, to a greater or lesser extent, that e-cigarettes are less dangerous than combustible tobacco.

Around 480,000 Americans die every year from smoking-related diseases, dwarfing the number of deaths from alcohol and opioids. The nation’s leading public health authorities, however, remain silent, leaving the public with the false impression that there is no benefit of switching from smoking to vaping.

Although the association between THC products and vaping-related lung injuries was apparent as early as September, the CDC refused to rule out nicotine as a cause. This was in spite of the fact that millions of Americans used these products for years without suffering an injury. The outbreak was also entirely confined to the United States, and nowhere to be found in other jurisdictions where e-cigarettes are legal and widely used.

CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat tacitly acknowledged that e-cigarettes were unlikely to be the cause of the outbreak in October, telling journalists, “We think something riskier is in much more frequent use.”

But still, the agency insisted on telling the country’s vapers to quit e-cigarettes altogether. The anti-e-cigarette panic sparked by the CDC’s messaging worried many who have spent their careers trying to eliminate smoking. In December, five public health experts wrote for Science, warning that: “Restricting access and appeal among less harmful vaping products out of an abundance of caution while leaving deadly combustible products on the market does not protect public health. It threatens to derail a trend that could hasten the demise of cigarettes, poised to take a billion lives this century.”

Speaking in a documentary for The Economist released February 7, Professor of Health Psychology at University College London Robert West, said:

“The concern is that e-cigarette users who have used an e-cigarette to stop smoking will back to smoking. If that happens, many lives will be lost.”

It’s not just current e-cigarette users who may go back to smoking that worries public health officials, but current smokers who may never try e-cigarettes for fear of the risks. According to a new study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, almost 40 percent of smokers have never tried an e-cigarette, with 53 percent citing concerns about their safety.

Over the past several months, e-cigarette sales have slowed significantly. At the same time, the unusually steep declines in cigarette sales that marked the first half of 2019 have moderated. Stock prices of British American Tobacco, Altria, and Philip Morris have all rebounded since September last year.

Analyzing Altria’s fourth-quarter financial results, RBC Capital Markets said on Jan. 28: “We believe there could be some relief for cigarette volumes in 2020 as the negative impact from vapor migration subsides, and shelf space is reallocated to cigarettes at retail.”

Citibank’s Adam Spielman’s Jan. 30 forecast for tobacco companies was bullish and succinct: “Our more general point is that what is bad for Juul is generally good for the tobacco market.”

Thanks to the CDC’s failure of communication on the real cause of the vaping-related illnesses, fewer smokers are inclined to switch to vaping, many legislators are rushing toward prohibition of vaping products, and Big Tobacco stocks are on the up.

When it comes to promoting cigarettes, Frank Sinatra could hardly have done a better job when he was pushing Chesterfields than the nation’s top public health authority has managed to do in the past six months.

Guy Bentley is the director of consumer freedom research at Reason Foundation. Bentley's research focuses on the taxation and regulation of nicotine, tobacco, alcohol, and food.