Last year I gave our oldest daughter an electronic cigarette kit for her 20th birthday. At that point Francine, who started smoking at 17, was going through two or three packs of Camels a day—which was pretty impressive, especially since she was not allowed to smoke inside the house. Today Francine has cut her cigarette habit down to zero. Instead she gets her nicotine from a refillable device that delivers the drug in a propylene glycol vapor, avoiding the tobacco combustion products that had threatened to degrade her health and shorten her life. Her favorite flavor: berry menthol.
I thought of Francine while reading "Gateway to Addiction," a recent report that claims e-cigarette companies "market their products to youth" by offering flavors "that could appeal to children and teens." The report, prepared by the offices of Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and 10 other Democratic legislators, also takes a dim view of e-cigarette advertising that might be seen by minors. Intent on portraying e-cigarettes as a menace to the youth of America, the report gives short shrift to the lifesaving potential of a product that mimics smoking without burning anything.
Durbin et al. assert that e-cigarette companies "use child-friendly flavors to attract young customers." How do they know that is what e-cigarette companies are doing? Because "e-cigarette companies market e-cigarettes in flavors that appear to be designed to appeal to youth"—"flavors like Cherry Crush, Chocolate Treat, Peachy Keen, and Grape Mint." That is about as sophisticated as the analysis gets.
The charge that e-cigarette companies are luring "young customers" is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. After all, young customers include adults, among them 20-something women such as Francine who seem to favor the varieties that Durbin et al. deem "child-friendly." But if the senator and his allies are claiming that only minors could possibly like these flavors, that Peachy Keen and Grape Mint appeal to 17-year-olds but not 18-year-olds, they are clearly wrong.
In truth, the rap against fruity e-cigarette fluid is the same as the rap against flavored cigars, sweet alcoholic beverages, and cannabis-infused chocolate bars: Adult products cannot be tolerated if they might taste good to kids. That is why Durbin et al. want the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which says it will issue e-cigarette regulations "very soon," to ban the flavors that offend them—for the children. Whether you think that recommendation is reasonable will depend on whether you accept the idea that concerns about underage consumption should dictate the choices available to adults.
Durbin et al.'s complaints about e-cigarette advertising and promotion are similarly overbroad. They note with alarm that e-cigarette companies "have significantly increased marketing expenditures" in recent years. They worry that e-cigarette companies sponsor "music festivals, parties, and motorsports events," which minors have been known to attend. They bemoan the fact that e-cigarette companies "utilize social media," which kids also utilize. They are disturbed that e-cigarette companies "air television and radio advertisements," because kids watch TV and listen to the radio.
Worse, the ads sometimes feature "celebrity spokespeople." You know who likes celebrities? Kids. They love Stephen Dorff almost as much as they love Cherry Crush e-cigarettes. A New York Times storyabout Durbin et al.'s report mentions another example of marketing that clearly targets minors: ads in Sports Illustrated that "featured women in bikinis." Every heterosexual man in America can testify that he immediately lost interest in that sort of thing when he turned 18.
Durbin et al. perceive a threat to children whenever e-cigarette companies give away their products, even in seemingly adult settings such as bars, which by law are off limits to anyone younger than 21. After all, kids love free stuff, especially when they can't get it.
All this marketing to youth must be working, Durbin et al. imply, since e-cigarette use among teenagers is rising. 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%." Durbin et al. do not mention that more than 90 percent of the teenagers who had tried e-cigarettes were already smokers, perhaps because that fact might undermine their warning that vaping could "increase public health risks by serving as a more socially acceptable gateway for non-smokers to pick up the habit." If anything, these survey results suggest that some teenagers may end up switching from smoking to vaping, rather than the other way around. Likewise with adults: Survey data indicate that e-cigarette use is overwhelmingly concentrated among current and former smokers.
There is in fact precious little evidence of the gateway effect that Durbin et al. fear. 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 same survey that Durbin et al. cite with alarm shows that smoking among teenagers fell as vaping rose.
Recent data from England likewise show that an increase in vaping has been accompanied by a decline in smoking. According to the Smoking Toolkit Study, e-cigarette use in England has been rising since 2011, when the survey began. Meanwhile, the percentage of smokers who reported quitting in the previous year rose from 4.6 percent in 2011 to 6.2 percent in 2012. The cessation rate was 6.1 percent last year and 8.7 percent in the first quarter of this year. During the same period the success rate of smokers who tried to quit rose from 13.7 percent to 21.4 percent.
Those numbers suggest the real promise of e-cigarettes—not as a nefarious plot to hook teenagers on nicotine but as a harm-reducing alternative to smoking. If the FDA follows Durbin's advice, it will ban most e-cigarette flavors, making the switch less appealing to smokers who prefer the prohibited varieties, and restrict e-cigarette advertising, making smokers less aware of a competing product that could literally save their lives.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.