After analyzing fluid from the lungs of patients in the recent vaping-disease epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control reported last week that every victim had traces of an additive used in marijuana vaping but never used in nicotine vaping. That should not come as a surprise, because there was never any evidence or suggestion that nicotine e-cigarettes such as Juul makes had caused any harm to their users. But the CDC had pretended otherwise in August, warning people not to use any kind of e-cigarette.
The CDC’s warning, amplified by alarmist media coverage, confused the public about the risk of vaping THC—the active chemical in marijuana—while discouraging smokers from switching to a safer source of nicotine. A national survey in September found that 58 percent of American adults mistakenly believed that the new epidemic was related to e-cigarettes like Juul, and that only 22 percent believed e-cigarettes were healthier than tobacco cigarettes. In reality, researchers have so far failed to find any long-term harm from nicotine vaping, and British public-health authorities have declared e-cigarettes at least 95 percent safer than tobacco cigarettes.
The CDC’s scare, coupled with a subsequent announcement that the Food and Drug Administration planned to ban the flavors used by more than 80 percent of adult vapers, amounted to welcome news for the declining tobacco industry. Cigarette sales had been plummeting (along with smoking rates among adults and young people) since Juul’s rise to popularity three years ago. But after the CDC’s and FDA’s actions, the Wall Street Journal reported, tobacco-industry analysts said that they expected cigarette sales to improve and were already seeing signs of that trend.
The industry’s prospects were dimmed, though, by another development in Washington: President Trump was reported to have rejected the FDA’s plan to ban e-cigarette flavors after being lobbied by vape shop owners and warned by his political advisers that it could cost him crucial support in swing states. Trump, who had earlier supported the flavor ban, was pilloried in the press for putting politics ahead of public health.
But whatever his motivations, at this point Trump seems to be the administration’s only voice of sanity on vaping. As Guy Bentley of the Reason Foundation noted in RealClearPolicy, “It should be a source of embarrassment that the public would be better informed on this issue if they listened to a vape shop owner or a cannabis website rather than the nation’s top public health authority.” The CDC, despite finding no evidence implicating nicotine in its new study, last week continued to warn Americans that the “only way to assure that you are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from use of all e-cigarette, or vaping, products.” It did at least recommend that nicotine vapers not go back to cigarettes, but what were they supposed to do instead? The CDC suggested using nicotine gum and other nicotine-replacement therapies that have proved far less effective in keeping people off cigarettes.
No ethical doctor would knowingly put his patient’s life at risk by deceiving him into abandoning the best treatment in favor of an inferior one, but the CDC operates by its own standards. Despite its new study, and despite the many reports of ex-smokers going back to cigarettes because of the agency’s false alarms, the CDC goes on jeopardizing the lives of millions of smokers in America—and the rest of the world, too, because its advice is taken seriously abroad. Shortly after the CDC started this year’s vaping panic, all e-cigarettes were banned in India, where 1 million people die annually from smoking-related illnesses.
American smokers can still vape flavored e-cigarettes, but that could change after next year’s election. Some congressional Democrats support legislation banning flavors, and the newest Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg, is a leader of the anti-vaping movement. In September, he announced that his Bloomberg Philanthropies would spend $160 million campaigning to ban e-cigarette flavors in at least 20 cities and states. Bloomberg’s campaign will appeal to progressive prohibitionists who favor restricting nicotine, but he’ll hear a different message from America’s vapers, estimated to number at least 8 million. They’re the ones who helped change Trump’s mind by showing up outside the White House to chant, “We vape, we vote.”
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