Why Should We Be Alarmed When Teenaged Smokers Try E-Cigarettes?


Last week Katherine Mangu-Ward noted a CDC report on e-cigarette use by teenagers. She pointed out that the increase in consumption viewed with alarm by CDC Director Tom Frieden—"high school students using e-cigarettes within the past 30 days rose from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent"—may reflect little more than experimentation. She also mentioned, lest we forget, that the health hazards of vaping pale beside those of smoking. Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel digs into the data and makes another important point: "Among youth who experimented with electronic cigarettes in 2012, the overwhelming majority—90.6%—were smokers." Hence the trend that Frieden portrays as a looming public health disaster may instead portend the opposite: successful harm reduction by people who would otherwise smoke conventional cigarettes, which are far more dangerous because of all those nasty toxins and carcinogens that tobacco generates when it's burned.

Siegel, who for years has been criticizing e-cigarette alarmism as a disservice not only to truth but to smokers who could dramatically reduce their health risks by switching, also notes the dearth of evidence to support Frieden's fear that e-cigarettes will lure people into smoking. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is so excited about that possibility that he goes off on an illogical rant that Siegel quotes:

Electronic cigarettes as marketed today—with flavors like bubblegum and strawberry—are targeted at young people with the very clear intent of creating a new generation of smokers. Without question, tobacco companies are using the same despicable tactics with e-cigarettes that they used in previous decades with traditional cigarettes to lure youth down a path of nicotine addiction and eventual death.

Leaving aside the demonstrably false notion that fruity flavors appeal only to minors, Blumenthal is so focused on condemning tobacco- and smoke-free e-cigarettes as the latest incarnation of Big Tobacco that he does not pause to consider whether what he is saying makes any sense. It does not, as Siegel points out:

The clear intention of electronic cigarette marketers is to sell as many electronic cigarettes as they can, not as many cigarettes as they can. In fact, of the more than 250 companies now on the general market, only one even sells cigarettes in the first place. Blumenthal's assertion, therefore, is not only unsubstantiated but preposterous.