Who could have guessed? Unilaterally banning a product that millions of adults use isn’t exactly an easy task.
As The Washington Post reported Thursday, the Trump administration appears to be second-guessing the details of its proposal to ban flavored vaping products. The final rule was expected to have been made public in the last few days, given that the White House had signed off on the policy more than a week ago. Meanwhile, a handful of top Trump officials and even President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have made comments suggesting a more sympathetic tone toward the vaping industry and its politically engaged consumers.
The president’s critics have lamented this as another example of the administration giving in to big business. But even if they’re right, there is another more important reason for the proposed ban to not move forward: There’s little justification for it.
It’s true that an alarming spate of vaping-related lung injuries provided a catalyst for the proposed ban. The more than 2,000 cases and 42 deaths have convinced some public health officials to declare vaping wholly unsafe while states and cities across the country moved to restrict vaping products.
Last week, however, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a chemical — vitamin E acetate — as the primary culprit for the outbreak. Often used as a cutting agent in black-market marijuana products, vitamin E acetate typically isn’t dangerous to humans. But when heated and inhaled, it can cause damage to the lungs, making vaping liquids that contain marijuana treated with the oil potentially deadly.
The crisis deserves nationwide awareness and outrage. But the truth matters, too: This chemical is not inherent to vaping or flavored products. The government should be cracking down on such illicit products, and smart lawmakers should use this moment to craft and advance legislation that would finally allow the federal government to regulate the marijuana market. But it makes no sense to force flavored vaping juices into the same unregulated markets that produced the lung-disease outbreak in the first place.
This distinction is important considering e-cigarettes’ potential benefits. The products — including their flavored varieties — have been shown relatively effective in helping people quit traditional smoking, which is far more dangerous than vaping. It would be a shame to throw up obstacles in front of this harm-reduction effort, especially if the main motivation for those obstacles was overhyped.
Of course, the outbreak of lung injuries isn’t the only reason why many public health officials support the administration’s proposed ban. The fruity and dessert flavors of vape juices have attracted millions of teenagers, sparking fear that young vapers will become addicted to nicotine and switch to more dangerous, traditional cigarettes. True to this point, survey data shows that teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking.
But gateway effects are notoriously hard to prove. Just because someone vapes and then starts to smoke doesn’t necessarily mean that one led to the other. In fact, a study published earlier this month, which examined the habits of more than 12,000 middle school and high school students, found that after controlling for other factors, such as whether they drink alcohol or have smokers in their family, vaping doesn’t increase the chance of teens starting to smoke. This is backed up by the fact that we haven’t yet seen any increase in traditional smoking among teens.
This study should, by no means, be the final word on the issue. But that’s just the point: We’re far from resolving the big scientific questions about the long-term use of e-cigarettes.
That kind of uncertainty is a regular feature in the debate on e-cigarettes. One study might argue that e-cigarettes are linked to lung cancer, but if you peer deeper into the analysis, the effect is shown only among mice. Another might suggest that the products increase the risk of heart disease, but the sample size is small and the effect is still nowhere near conclusive.
Frustrated? Welcome to the world of science. Rarely does evidence paint a clear enough picture to justify banging on the table and demanding policy changes. Far less does it justify one-size-fits-all policies such as Trump’s proposed ban.
We should be doing everything we can to keep vaping products away from kids and discouraging their recreational use, given all that we don’t know about them. But we should also be careful to not undo the potential good these products could offer those trying to give up traditional cigarettes.
That’s not a hard nuance to understand. And if Trump officials come closer to that conclusion, even for the wrong reasons, we should take it as a victory for common sense and science.