Photo illustration by John Lyman

U.S. News


Lumping Vaping in with Smoking is Unscientific and Unhelpful

Vaping is under attack in the United States. Lawmakers in Vermont are the latest to make headlines with a bill that would stamp out much of the electronic cigarette market in that state. The bill is motivated by public health, but it is riddled with scientific fallacies and seems set to make Vermonters less healthy than before, not more – and cost them a pretty penny, too.

Misinformation and scaremongering around vaping are rife. Hearing how it is described in high-flying circles such as the World Health Organization, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s more dangerous than heroin (some anti-vape campaign groups have even tried to make that comparison). In fact, vaping is 200 times less likely to cause cancer than smoking, 95% safer than traditional cigarettes overall, and by far the best tool ever discovered for helping people quit smoking.

‘Ah,’ say the nanny-statists, ‘but what about the kids?’ Public health officials across the U.S. are convinced that vaping advertising aggressively targets children, and therefore that the state must intervene. They seem to imagine a great big-tobacco conspiracy designed to ensnare children into lifelong nicotine addiction en masse by using devious marketing tactics, such as making vapes taste nice.

This is, of course, bunkum. Vape manufacturers make their products tasty by giving them flavors such as candy, pineapple, mint, or cookies because they want people to buy and enjoy them, just like any other business would. It has nothing to do with targeting children. Adults like cookies too.

Nonetheless, red tape enthusiasts insist that the vaping market must be stamped out to protect children. “Right now, if you walk into any school, you are pretty much walking into an epidemic environment where kids are vaping flavors and then becoming the next generation of addicted adults,” says Ginny Lyons, chair of Vermont’s Health and Welfare Committee, in defending the legislation.

Fears of a ‘youth vaping epidemic’ are wildly overblown and plainly weaponized by Democrats (and some Republicans) to advance their big-state regulatory agenda, which extends far beyond e-cigarettes. The CDC uses an exceedingly generous definition of a ‘vaper’ (anyone who has used an e-cigarette once in the past month) but even according to that measure, only one in ten high schoolers vapes (down from one in five in 2019). The number of young daily vape users is much smaller, suggesting for most it is a fad whose novelty value wears off quickly, rather than a pernicious, inescapable addiction.

The problem of children vaping is much smaller than many would have us believe. But it should be said that the problem does exist. There already exists a comprehensive ban on selling vapes to children. Enforcing that ban fully so that e-cigarettes do not end up flooding schools, as Lyons fears, would be a sensible way forward. Banning flavored vapes altogether, even for adults, out of fear that some kids might get their hands on them, would be like banning cars to prevent road rage. The proposed solution is wildly out of proportion with the problem.

In fact, such a ban might well make the problem worse. Removing products from the legal market in one fell swoop will only lead to a boon for smoking – and sellers of illegal vapes. In the age of the Internet, the small minority of tech-savvy kids who want to vape will no doubt find plenty of creative ways to access those products – this time without the government being able to tackle it, leaving them vulnerable to all manner of illegal, dangerous products such as so-called ‘super-vapes,’ whose nicotine content can be alarmingly high.

The best path – to allow adults to continue to vape, while safeguarding kids – is to properly regulate the e-cigarette market and, crucially, fully enforce the ban on vape sales to minors. We’re perfectly capable of that best-of-both-worlds approach, although giving police forces more funding to do anything probably isn’t high up on Democrats’ agendas right now, even when it means keeping children safe.

Of course, those police resources could easily be paid for by the substantial tax revenues which emerge from having a legal and thriving vape sales market. The Tax Foundation estimates that the proposed flavor ban would cost Vermont almost $16 million per year in lost tax receipts. Surely, that’s enough to pay for a few boys in blue to act against the small minority of e-cigarette retailers who are too lax with their customer age checks.

If Vermont goes ahead with its flavor ban, it would not be the first or last state to make the mistake of overregulating vaping. Around a dozen states already have harsh restrictions in place which make it harder for adults who smoke cigarettes to access potentially lifesaving vapes. America’s gradual descent into nanny-statism will bring with it substantial costs, both economic and social, but politicians’ and officials’ appetite for more red tape and a bigger state still looks far from satisfied.