The New York Times Highlights U.S. Officials' Irrational Hostility Toward E-Cigarettes

By portraying vaping as a public health menace, the government promotes misconceptions that deter smokers from quitting.



New York Times science reporter Sabrina Tavernise highlights the tendency of American public health officials to view e-cigarettes as a threat rather than an opportunity, even though vaping offers a much less dangerous alternative to smoking. "A growing number of scientists and policy makers say the relentless portrayal of e-cigarettes as a public health menace, however well intentioned, is a profound disservice to the 40 million American smokers who could benefit from the devices," she writes.

Tavernise cites survey data indicating that the percentage of Americans who wrongly view e-cigarettes as no less hazardous than the conventional kind tripled between 2011 and 2015, from about 13 percent to nearly 40 percent. That misperception, encouraged by misleading and sometimes downright false statements from government officials and anti-smoking activists, surely discourages smokers from making a switch that could save their lives. "The unintended consequence is more lives are going to be lost," one critic tells Tavernise, who contrasts the U.S. approach with the attitude of British public health officials, who see e-cigarettes as way to dramatically reduce smoking-related disease and death.

David Sweanor, a tobacco control specialist at the University of Ottawa, compares the enormous difference between the health hazards of smoking and the health hazards of vaping to "the relative risks of jumping out a fourth-story window versus taking the stairs." Although the advantage of the the latter option is obvious, he tells Tavernise, American officials "are saying: 'Look, these stairs, people could slip, they could get mugged. We just don't know yet.'"

Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells Tavernise he is aware of smokers who say they quit with the help of e-cigarettes, "but the plural of anecdote is not data." Mitch Zeller, who as director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products is overseeing regulations that are expected to cripple the vaping industry, is similarly dismissive. In a recorded interview that was played at last month's meeting of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, Brad Rodu reports, Zeller said he is "absolutely aware of the anecdotal reports about individuals using e-cigarettes to help them quit, but we can't make population-level policy on the basis of anecdotal reports," because "FDA is required to use a population health standard."

Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville and a longtime tobacco harm reduction advocate, notes that we do have "population-level" data from surveys of current and former smokers. In the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, for instance, "2.5 million former smokers were current users of vapor products," which suggests e-cigarettes are a pretty popular and effective way to quit smoking. "These 2.5 million former smokers are more than anecdotes," Rodu writes. "They constitute population-level evidence."

Likewise the survey data indicating that more than 6 million Europeans have quit smoking with the help of e-cigarettes, while more than 9 million have cut back. Tavernise notes that "surveys by Action on Smoking and Health, a British antismoking group, have found that half of Britain's 2.8 million e-cigarette users no longer smoke real cigarettes." She adds that another British study, published by the journal Addiction in 2014, found that "among people who are trying to quit smoking, e-cigarette users are 60 percent more likely to succeed than those who use over-the-counter nicotine therapies like gum and patches."

Such observational evidence does not conclusively prove that e-cigarettes help smokers quit. Maybe the vapers who used to smoke would have quit anyway, and maybe the advantage over nicotine gum and patches has to do with the sort of people who choose e-cigarettes, as opposed to the e-cigarettes themselves. But controlled, randomized experiments, which are usually seen as offering stronger proof, have a weakness too, since they do not allow smokers to sort themselves according to the cigarette alternatives that appeal to them most. The variables for which such studies control, which include subjects' tastes and preferences, may play an important role in the real world.

In any case, Frieden is simply wrong that "the plural of anecdote is not data." When the anecdotes come in the form of responses to surveys with representative samples, they do qualify as data, and they should not be dismissed as irrelevant simply because they are not the same as data generated by clinical trials. When you combine these numbers with the evidence that vaping is much safer than smoking, you have a compelling case for promoting e-cigarettes as an alternative to the real thing.

Against that case, Frieden offers nothing but speculative concerns. "There are at least three negative things that might be happening," he tells Tavernise: 1) People who never would have used tobacco may start vaping, 2) some of them may move on to smoking, and 3) smokers who otherwise would have quit completely will keep smoking once they have an alternative source of nicotine that can be used in more settings. But nonsmokers rarely become regular vapers, and there is little or no evidence that vaping is a "gateway" to smoking or that it deters smokers from quitting. Furthermore, vapers who reduce the number of cigarettes they consume but continue to smoke are still reducing the health risks they face. Although e-cigarette alarmists like Frieden and Zeller present themselves as more scientifically sophisticated than vaping enthusiasts, they are the ones who are grasping at straws.

NEXT: Iowa Cops Ambushed, Trump Seen as More Trustworthy Than Clinton, U.S. Police Force Full of Sexual Predators: A.M. Links

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. But it looks like a cigarette! What about the children?! Can’t someone think of the children for once?

    1. I blame 8 Man for all of the smoking today. He corrupted a generation of youth.

      Hachiro fights crime (even bringing his own murderers to justice). He smokes “energy” cigarettes, to rejuvenate his powers, that he carries in a cigarette case on his belt.

      1. Yes, and Underdog is responsible for the meth epidemic.

        1. I’d do meth too if I could spend all my time high and having sex with Sweet Polly Purebred

  2. When I start to think about how the burden of proof has shifted so badly in the government’s favor in terms of regulating anything, I seriously think about choosing to become addicted to something, ANYTHING that will just make it all better. I think my back is going to start hurting a lot, because 10mg of Vicodin every 4-6 hours helps make the world a better place!

    Seriously though, how did we let this happen? If we have to some sort of regulatory framework, shouldn’t it be that it is the GOVERNMENT’S job to prove that something is so bad that they will limit it? (As a libertarian I think it is all a crock of shit, but in the interim between now and Libertopia, I am trying the step by step approach).

    1. “Seriously though, how did we let this happen?”

      Easy. The American public has been dumbed down and are now overall apathetic. The way the war on drugs and all of this other bullshit got started was by saying that we had to pass bad laws ‘for the children’. Those 3 words, surely some of the most evil words ever spoken in all of history, was enough to make us all slaves.

    2. Every time this topic comes up it is worth linking to this story about the Duluth City Council banning vaping.

      “From a distance, I would argue you can’t tell the difference. So how can you go to this one person and say ‘oh, that’s tobacco, you’re out of here’ and ‘oh wait, that’s not, that’s an e-cigarette so you can stay?'” she asked. “Once you start picking and choosing what’s allowed, that’s a slippery slope you go down.”

  3. But did you see the second season of True Detective? I mean, really.

  4. “There are at least three negative things that might be happening,” he tells Tavernise: 1) People who never would have used tobacco may start vaping, 2) some of them may move on to smoking, and 3) smokers who otherwise would have quit completely will keep smoking once they have an alternative source of nicotine that can be used in more settings.

    Look, they could develop dangerous and sinister telekinesis or become Trump voters, AND WE DON”T WANT THAT.

    1. I wondet if they any “data” on their doom and gloom predictiond or if it judt anecdotes?

      1. I don’t think they really have much of either.

    2. People who never would have used tobacco may start vaping

      Remains to be demonstrated that this is a negative

      some of them may move on to smoking

      Probably far fewer than would move from smoking to vaping

      smokers who otherwise would have quit completely will keep smoking once they have an alternative source of nicotine that can be used in more settings

      See 1)

  5. It’s not irrational, it’s Machiavellian. They want to protect tobacco tax revenues as well as the smoking cessation revenues of their buddies in pharma, and obviously they don’t want to let a new regulatory opportunity slip past them (see the FAA claiming jurisdiction over all flying objects including paper airplanes). They know that cracking down on e-Cigarettes will harm public health and kill some people. But they don’t care.

    1. That was my first thought when I read the headline. There’s nothing irrational about protecting your cronies and eventually getting something in return. As usual, the problem is that we have public officials faced with these incentives and also the power to do something about it.

      Is there a federal agency responsible for more death and suffering than the FDA? The only solution is to abolish it. Too bad it will never happen.

  6. I think its now getting close to where the whole “grey suit, purple tie” thing is 100% played-out. When heads of govt agencies are starting to catch on… it may have already gotten there a while ago. I’m off my game.

  7. The unintended consequence is more lives are going to be lost

    I haven’t seen anything to convince me that this is unintended. Seems more likely to be seen as collateral damage.

  8. As a patient at Moffitt Cancer Center who also vapes I was asked to be part of an e-cig study. So far my part has consisted of answering what felt like at least a thousand questions that were basically the same few questions asked over and over again to see whether slightly changing the question’s wording would gain a different response. I was questioned by a young medical student who seemed like a very sincere young man and an older woman who clearly had her mind made up. I can’t tell you how many times she rolled her eyes at my answers and on a few occasions made snotty remarks when my answer didn’t fit her preconceived notion. It was so obvious that at one point the medical student’s jaw dropped at one of her remarks. Bottom line is that I have cancer (non-smoking related) and vaping has helped me to quit cigarettes. I would think a major cancer center would have a favorable view towards anything that helps people quit smoking but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  9. The New York Times Highlights U.S. Officials’ Irrational Hostility Toward E-Cigarettes

    The real headline here, is that anyone expects rationality out of our masters.

    Hostility, sure, but rational hostility? NOPE.

  10. Ah, Frieden. I remember him as Bloomberg’s right-hand nanny. The man who single-handedly ruined NYC nightlife and simultaneously jacked up the city treasury with fat taxes on the evil weed.

  11. “but the plural of anecdote is not data.”

    Krugnuts disagrees!

  12. Good news!!

    NYT profits down 95%


    1. Larger menace – http://fortune.com/2016/10/06/…..xy-note-7/

  13. Vaping has been a lifesaver for me and my wife. I was a smoker of over 45 yrs. My health had become very serious. I have a stent and my blood pressure was through the roof. I was on the verge of being maxed out on medication. Basicly I was a walking stroke waiting to happen. In January I switched from cigarettes to vaping full time.
    MY health is 100% better my blood pressure is at normal range now. I have tried every smoking cessation program pill, gadget and hypnosis with no luck. Vaping is the only thing that has worked for my wife & myself. The FDA is regulating something that works out of existence. Because the vaping industry is cutting into big pharma’s monopoly on smoking cessation drugs. That have a smaller success rate than vaping.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.