On Tuesday, the Richmond City Council will vote on whether or not to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes, putting it on track to become the third Bay Area city this summer to make this move. But Richmond — and cities across the country — ought to base public policy on science, not fear or political expediency.
Inflammatory rhetoric out of Washington, D.C., describing a youth vaping “epidemic,” has escalated fears in communities across the country and put pressure on many municipalities to move quickly to impose excise taxes, flavor restrictions, and outright bans. But this impulse to act swiftly will lead to more harm than good.
E-cigarettes might not be a flawless product, but research shows that they are a vastly safer alternative to conventional cigarettes, which continue to kill nearly 500,000 Americans each year. While most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, this is not the cause of smoking-related illnesses such as heart disease, lung cancer, and emphysema.
The highly respected Public Health England initially determined e-cigarettes to be at least 95% safer than smoking. Since then, additional research has continued to show the benefits of vaping as a form of harm reduction, as well as a smoking cessation tool. The New England Journal of Medicine published a remarkable study earlier this year that found that adult smokers who used e-cigarettes were almost twice as likely to quit smoking as those who relied on nicotine replacement therapies such as gums and patches. Even more research published in July found that daily vaping by adult smokers led to “a 77% increased odds” of long-term abstinence from smoking.
In contrast to the hysterics out of Washington, e-cigarettes are having a tremendously positive impact on public health. That’s why lawmakers must be careful that their desire to reduce teen vaping doesn’t undermine the well-being of their adult constituents.
After Utah, California has the lowest smoking rate in the country. Still, smoking is strongly correlated with income and education levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control, people with fewer resources and lower levels of education have higher rates of cigarette smoking. And the smoking rate in California’s Contra Costa County among adults persists somewhere between 12.5-14.9%, serving as a reminder to legislators that they should avoid creating any additional barriers to quitting.
Tobacco control experts such as David Abrams at New York University’s College of Global Public Health are outspoken about the impact vaping bans will have on public health, noting these bans would “keep people smoking deadly cigarettes.” Despite well-meaning legislators, Abrams reminds lawmakers that by eliminating e-cigarettes, people who smoke would be forced either to return to traditional cigarettes or travel out of their way to another town to buy the product.
Michael Siegel of Boston University’s School of Public Health agrees. “However well-intentioned,” these bans “put thousands of former smokers at greater risk of relapse by limiting their access to healthier alternatives.”
As former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently reminded us, the FDA is required to consider the impact e-cigarettes will have on public health under the Tobacco Control Act of 2009. And a recent court order has accelerated the regulatory proceedings. Vaping companies now must have their premarket tobacco applications accepted by the FDA by May 2020 — two years earlier than previously planned. Unlike local city councils that are too often responding rashly to constituent emotions, the FDA is required to consider mountains of scientific evidence before making a decision.
Cities such as Richmond that are rushing through their own regulations have the potential to reverse years of declines in smoking and put the lives of people they’re hoping to protect at risk. With the deadline less than a year away, local governments should restrain from pushing through more legislation.
Jennifer Berger-Coleman is a certified medical assistant at the University of California, Davis. She serves on the board of directors of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association.
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