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Is vaping as harmful as smoking?

Public health regulators at all levels of governance in the United States, including the so-called "pro-business" Trump administration sadly, should reconsider their approaches.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 2, 2018, An illustration shows a man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC. - The US Surgeon General on December 18, 2018, called for "aggressive" action against e-cigarette use, which he said has exploded to epidemic proportions among youth and puts their health and brain development at risk. (Photo by EVA HAMBACH / AFP)EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/EVA HAMBACH

Did you know that nicotine and caffeine have similar effects? The Royal Society for Public Health, an English charitable research organization, concluded that nicotine is literally “no more harmful than caffeine.” According to a position statement from the society, nicotine found in e-cigarettes and other nicotine replacement therapies are adequate approaches to reducing combustible tobacco use in the United Kingdom.

“Nicotine is harmful in cigarettes largely because it is combined with other damaging chemicals such as tar and arsenic, and as a highly addictive substance getting hooked on nicotine is one of the prime reasons why people become dependent on cigarettes,” the society’s position statement reads. “Electronic cigarettes and Nicotine Replacement Therapy (gum, lozenges, and patches) contain nicotine but don’t contain the harmful substances found in cigarettes.”

The U.K. House of Commons, in 2017, further adopted a policy position that virtually endorsed vaping as a cessation method for individuals addicted to combustible tobacco products (i.e., traditional cigarettes). The members of Parliament that serve on the Science and Technology Committee further cited their findings from a study conducted by Public Health England concluding that those who utilize e-cigarettes are likely to or have quit smoking. Additionally, other studies sourced to the British government’s public health sphere also find the benefits of e-cigarettes as a harm reduction strategy.

To note, a widely cited study from the Royal College of Physicians concluded that e-cigarette use is at least 95 percent safer than traditional, combustible tobacco products. Other conclusions have been reached by other governments and legislative bodies, including the Parliament of Australia claiming that the “complete substitution of tobacco cigarettes with E‑cigarettes reduced users’ exposure to toxicants and carcinogens.” The Parliament of Australia cited a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit body with a charter from the U.S. Congress.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, both political appointees of President Donald Trump ironically, have announced their organizational views on vaping in recent months. Both, ultimately, characterize a growing vaping “epidemic” among America’s youth as the reason public health regulators at the federal, state, and local levels should work to regulate the domestic vape industry out of existence. Gottlieb, for example, announced regulations that ban entire products from being sold in most retail locations. Notably, the long-demonized Juul line of vaping products has become fixtures of “sin” among the tobacco control lobby and public health agencies. Adams has additionally argued, more recently, that states and localities should fight the youth vaping epidemic with pricing policies (e.g., taxation, etc.), censorship of products and marketing, among other strategies.

Keep in mind though, that the justification for both Gottlieb and Adams to advocate for such policy can be attributed to flawed data collection. For example, consider the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey’s findings.

Though data reveals that there is a rise in use among the survey sample, the data still fails to track daily vaping use. According to this year’s data, most high schoolers who were surveyed are likely to use e-cigarettes only occasionally. Plus, only 5.8 percent, or about 845,000 to 875,000 individuals, of those surveyed reported they vaped for 20 or more days in the past month. This is ultimately “small potatoes” when the total high school-aged population of the United States in the fall of 2018 was 15.1 million, grades 9-12, according to the federal National Center for Education Statistics. Additionally, claiming that these numbers suggest a public health epidemic are misguided.

It is safe to say that curtailing underaged e-cigarette use is a nonpartisan issue that industry advocates and opponents can both agree upon, but, the fact that remains is that the anti-vaping push in the United States is built on hysteria. Considering the findings of this year’s Monitoring the Future study, we should at least recognize the public health victory of underaged cigarette use being at an all-time low with correlation suggesting that the dropping numbers can be attributed to vaping’s rise in popularity. But, the real takeaway from this supporting evidence is that federal intervention is threatening the overwhelmingly larger population of the 9 million American adults who vape.

Additionally, in a recent commentary piece written for the Capital Research Center, I cite data from a groundbreaking study written by Competitive Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Michelle Minton. In her research, Minton examines the funding matrix between the tobacco control lobby, elements in government, and corporate America that pushes public messaging that stokes fear in the population. Compared to public sentiments in the U.K. where vaping is considered a viable cessation and harm reduction method, two-thirds of Americans believe that vaping is just as harmful or worse than regular cigarettes. There is little data on vaping’s long-term effects on the human body, granted. These sentiments, though, are a result of anti-vaping messaging, nonetheless.

For instance, consider some academic arguments that undercut the hysteria. A 2017 study in the British Medical Journal, conducted by multinational researchers, revealed e-cigarettes had better success in getting individuals to quit smoking than traditional pharmacology approaches (e.g., nicotine gum, etc.). Another study from 2017, published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, also confirms the argument that e-cigarette use dramatically reduces the inhalation of carcinogens and toxicants. More and more studies confirm these findings, including rebuttals to common arguments against vaping.

One of my favorite rebuttals is to the “popcorn lung” argument, for example. Opponents commonly claim e-juices contain a substance known as diacetyl. Diacetyl is known to cause “popcorn lung,” scientifically known as bronchiolitis obliterans. This claim derived from a media storm caused by a 2015 Harvard University study that concluded that diacetyl was found in 75 percent of e-juices tested across only eight popular brands. The researchers, though they found diacetyl, didn’t find any direct link between vaping e-juice and a person contracting popcorn lung. Cancer Research U.K. even argues that there are no documented cases of vaping causing popcorn lung and that the condition is rare. Other studies additionally concluded that combustible cigarettes give off higher doses of diacetyl compared to e-cigarettes.

Conflating academic arguments like the popcorn lung one and existing policy positions to play into a hysteria of a non-existent epidemic is harmful. Based on what was highlighted in this editorial, there is little to justify an aggressive policy against vaping. Public health regulators at all levels of governance in the United States, including the so-called “pro-business” Trump administration sadly, should reconsider their approaches.

Michael McGrady, a political consultant, is the executive director of McGrady Policy Research.

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