I make it a point not to comment too much or too often on the actions of the Trump administration, because there is no shortage of ink spent on those activities already and who has that kind of time or stamina anyway? But here’s something that perplexes me a bit, coming from an administration that both friends and foes call “conservative”: the proposed ban of flavored e-cigarettes.
To be fair, the proposal is a response to what some hyperbolic media reports have characterized as a public health crisis — a small number of severe lung illnesses, several tragically resulting in death, associated with the use of vaping devices.
Many of these cases involve teenagers like 17-year-old Whitney Livingston of Dallas, who had a history of vaping and was put on life support earlier this month. “She could have almost died,” her mother told Fox 4 News after Livingston suddenly developed pneumonia in both lungs.
Livingston is only one of 17 vaping-related cases reported to health officials in Dallas County.
In Tarrant County, there are eight reported cases of lung illness believed to have been caused by vaping, although the ages of those involved have not been released.
Nationwide, the number of vaping-related lung illnesses has reached 530 (as of Sept. 17), with cases reported in 38 states and one U.S. territory and seven deaths in six states attributed to vaping.
Sixteen percent of vaping illnesses have involved individuals under 18 years of age, and those cases specifically — involving what appear to be otherwise healthy youth — motivated the administration to take some action.
Federal health officials believe that clearing the market of flavored e-cigarettes will reverse the epidemic of e-cigarette use, a questionable notion. Even so, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has called the proliferation of youth vaping “deeply concerning.”
I wouldn’t disagree with him there. I, for one, was disturbed when a vape store opened across the street from Paschal High School. It promptly closed, but the location was obviously chosen to target high school kids.
Indeed, vaping has risen sharply among high schoolers in the last several years; nearly 21 % of high school students said they vaped between 2017 and 2018.
That’s because while vaping has helped millions of people kick their smoking habit and generally has been viewed as a safe alternative to smoking, it’s also attracted new clientele in the form of young people who never smoked traditional cigarettes. And like their combustible cousins, e-cigarettes contain the addictive substance nicotine.
So it’s a safe bet that nicotine, not cotton-candy flavor, vaping is what keeps teenagers vaping, but I digress. Addiction, especially among the young, generally isn’t a good thing.
And there is a lot we don’t know about vaping and its impact on long-term health. That research should continue.
But even if we were to stipulate that flavored e-cigarettes are the equivalent of a “gateway drug” to vaping, the federal ban feels like inappropriate and unnecessary regulation of an activity that has had a net positive effect on public health.
Consider first that nearly half a million people die of tobacco-related disease each year in the U.S. According to some estimates, as many as 8 million people will die prematurely worldwide each year due to tobacco use.
Compare that to the 530 cases of vaping-related illnesses.
What’s more, of those 530 cases, the Centers for Disease Control report that “most patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC,” (the active ingredient in cannabis) not just nicotine. Those products are illegal in most states where the vaping-related illnesses have occurred, which makes them difficult to track. They are also the suspected cause of most of the reported lung ailments.
Lastly, states are best equipped to regulate this kind of thing and many states, including Texas, already have taken action to reduce teenage use of e-cigarettes. legislators this year restricted the sale of cigarettes and e-cigarettes to (most) people younger than 21. We have yet to see whether or not this will meaningfully reduce teenager vapers, but I am hopeful.
Of course, the best way to reduce the proliferation of any bad habit is good information, and we should look to public health officials to provide us with informed research and data that will enable individuals to make good decisions about their health and well-being.
We shouldn’t be left to rely on breathless media reports and an administration that likes to pre-emptively ban things.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.