New York City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Queens) wants to ban flavored electronic cigarettes. For the children.
“These flavors are direct marketing to children,” he told the Daily News. “They appeal to children, and we’re taking them out of that market.”
The councilman’s crusade — which ignores the fact that it’s already illegal to sell e-cigs to minors — reflects two misconceptions that are common among critics who portray e-cigarettes as a menace to the youth of America. They think vaping leads to smoking, and they assume any flavor other than tobacco is strictly for kids.
Based on these myths, they push measures that would undermine public health instead of promoting it.
As Constantinides would be quick to tell you, the percentage of teenagers who report trying e-cigarettes has risen sharply in recent years. Between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, “the percentage of high school students who had used e-cigarettes more than doubled from 4.7% to 10%.”
But trying a product is not the same as using it regularly, and more than 90% of the teenagers who had tried e-cigarettes were already smokers. If anything, these survey results suggest that some teenagers may end up switching from smoking to vaping, thereby reducing the health hazards they face.
In a 2013 survey of 1,300 college students, only one respondent reported trying e-cigarettes before smoking the conventional kind. “It didn’t seem as though it really proved to be a gateway to anything,” said the lead researcher. Consistent with that observation, the NYTS and the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey both show that smoking among teenagers fell as vaping rose.
“Although there have been claims that EC (electronic cigarettes) is acting as a ‘gateway’ to smoking in young people,” notes a recent review in the journal Addiction, “the evidence does not support this assertion. Regular use of EC by non-smokers is rare, and no migration from EC to smoking has been documented.”
What about Constantinides’ simple-minded notion that e-cigarettes must be aimed at kids because of all those flavors? Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) likewise insists that if an e-cigarette flavor does not appeal him, it could not possibly appeal to anyone older than 17.
“I am an adult,” the 77-year-old senator declared at a hearing in June. “Would I be attracted to Cherry Crush, Chocolate Treat, Peachy Keen, Vanilla Dreams? No, I wouldn’t.”
Yet the flavors that offend Constantinides and Rockefeller clearly appeal to adults who switch from smoking to vaping. In a survey conducted by E-Cigarette Forum last summer, three-quarters of adult vapers favored flavor categories other than tobacco, including fruit (31%), bakery/dessert (19%) and savory/spice (5%).
Sales data from Palm Beach Vapors, a chain of 14 stores that sell vaping equipment and liquids to adults only, confirm that supposedly juvenile flavors are popular with adults. Last fiscal year, only two of the chain’s top 19 sellers were tobacco flavors. They finished 18th and 19th, far below flavors such as strawberry, watermelon, and cinnamon.
Two-thirds of the ex-smokers in the E-Cigarette Forum survey said non-tobacco flavors were important in helping them quit. Survey data reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last December likewise indicate that flavor variety is important in quitting.
Critics like Constantinides and Rockefeller, guided by little more than their own idiosyncratic tastes, want to decree which flavors adult vapers may consume, even at the cost of deterring smokers from quitting. These taste tyrants elevate hypothetical teenagers above verifiably real adults, with potentially deadly consequences.
Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine, a syndicated columnist, and a drug policy blogger at Forbes.com.
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