By Justin Leventhal, American Consumer Institute
Vaping has the potential to reduce the harm smokers suffer, however, misconceptions about teen vaping and flavored vaping products have slowed the FDA’s approvals of new vaping products and encouraged states to restrict what products are available.
While vaping is not harmless, research shows that it is far less harmful than smoking, in some studies, only four percent or five percent as harmful. It has also been demonstrated to be a useful smoking cessation tool, and studies have recommended wider use of vaping to help smokers quit.
The UK plans to give vapes to smokers who want to quit while also cracking down on retailers that sell to kids. Even with this lessened risk, kids still should be denied any nicotine products, and more enforcement can be done to prevent youth nicotine use in the US as well. There is good reason the UK is moving forward with the idea, vaping can be twice as effective as other methods used to quit smoking. Other research has suggested that non-tobacco-flavored vapes are better at helping people quit smoking than tobacco-flavored vapes.
Despite the usefulness of flavored vapes to help people quit smoking, there have been concerns raised that flavored vapes are just a way to target children, given increasing youth vaping rates from 2012 to 2020. What is often left out is the drastic decline in youth smoking that accompanied it. The rise in youth vaping peaked in 2020 and declined drastically in subsequent years. While overall youth use rates for nicotine products in general remained similar between 2011 and 2022, youth users of nicotine products switched to the less harmful option. While more effort can and should be put into preventing any minors from obtaining nicotine products, vaping did not increase youth nicotine use.
The switch from smoking to vaping by youth also addresses another argument about youth use, the incorrect claims vaping is a gateway to smoking. The data from youth use shows a shift away from tobacco use by youth due to vaping. Additionally, while the majority of youth who used vaping products also smoked in 2011 as vapes were coming onto the market, this fell off to the point that now most of the youth who vape do not smoke at all. This shows a replacement of smoking by vaping, not a gateway effect.
Despite the reduction in harm to current smokers that vaping allows, the FDA has misjudged the risks of vaping and flavored vapes. This has resulted in a poor approval process for vaping products. General standards of acceptability are not known by producers or consumers. The FDA still focuses on a youth vaping “epidemic,” which, as explained above, is just the switch away from cigarettes, not an increase in youth nicotine use.
It has also resulted in bans that remove choices for smokers to quit, such as banning menthol-flavored vapes, despite the evidence that flavored vapes help people quit smoking at higher rates than tobacco-flavored vapes.
The FDA has also been notorious for long delays in their approval process. At one point, the FDA failed to meet its deadline for approving or disproving applications by nearly two years. One recent report found a lack of transparency and clarity in the FDA’s approval process for vaping products, resulting in an arbitrary approval process.
States have also passed laws that misjudge the relative harms of vaping and the role of flavored vapes in reducing the harms of tobacco products. Louisiana recently passed a strict law on vapes that could result in a massive loss of choice for consumers. This would remove most flavored vapes from the market, limiting smokers’ choices for ways to quit smoking and ultimately costing residents of Louisiana years of their lives. The justification is to prevent vapes from “fostering a new generation of nicotine addicts,” despite no evidence that vaping increases the number of youths addicted to nicotine.
While the concerns about kids’ exposure to addictive substances are understandable, many of the claims being made about vaping are not true. Giving smokers an effective option to quit smoking will add years to many current smokers’ lives, as well as adding quality to those years. Until the FDA has a quicker and more transparent approval system for vaping products with a realistic assessment of the risks, American smokers’ lives will continue to be unnecessarily shortened by depriving them of tools to quit smoking.
Justin Leventhal is a senior policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.