A new report from Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released this week called for the federal government to hit electronic cigarettes with high taxes, regulatory restrictions, limits on advertising for vaping products, and bans on the sale of some vaping products.
The alarmist report could pave the way for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to take action to curb the growth of vaping, even though doing so would make it harder for smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, which are undeniably safer than traditional, combustible cigarettes.
Some state and local governments are already way ahead of Murthy. Two states in particular—California and Massachusetts—account for more than 200 local-level restrictions on the sale or use of electronic cigarettes. A new report from Halo Cigs, a leading producer of e-cigarettes and other vaping products, takes a look at the wide range of regulations on vaping at the state and local levels.
Massachusetts, despite its small size, has the most local restrictions on where e-cigarettes can be bought or used. The state is one of several that apply the same rules to vaping products as traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products—despite the fact that e-cigarettes contain no tobacco. That's a common fallacy surrounding the regulations of e-cigarettes, and one that Murphy used repeatedly in his new report, as Reason's Jacob Sullum pointed out yesterday.
While the graphic above gives you some idea about which states are most and least welcoming to vaping, it doesn't tell the whole story. Local and state-level restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes are only one way that governments have wacked the vaping industry. In Pennsylvania, for example, there are few local rules prohibiting vaping (as the map above indicates), but a new tax 40 percent wholesale tax on vaping products passed by state lawmakers in June has forced some vape shops to close their doors.
None of those local and state-level restrictions may matter much in the long run, since new rules from the FDA could drive the vast majority of e-cigarette products out of the market. Starting next year, manufacturers will have to pay up to $1 million per product to clear the FDA's new permitting process for vaping products.
Shutting down vaping with onerous taxes or regulatory decrees makes it harder for nicotine-addicted smokers to kick the habit by taking up a safer alternatives. Many e-cigarettes contain nicotine extracted from tobacco, but considering them the equivalent of cigarettes is an affront to common sense and medical science. There's no combustion, no smoke and no tar in e-cigarettes, along with fewer cancer-causing chemicals. One study from the United Kingdom found that e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than their combustible cousins.
Government-led efforts to keep people from accessing or using e-cigarettes is not a victory for public health, but, like so many other things, the federal government should let states experiment with different policies to see what works. In 10 years, we might be able to tell whether Massachusetts and Calfornia's heavy-handed approach to vaping has prevented e-cigarettes from being widely used and what consequences that had on general smoking rates and smoking-related diseases. We could compare that to what will have happened in states that took a lighter touch on regulating vaping.
If the FDA and the surgeon general get their way, though, the federal government will close that possibility in favor of restrictive policies that hurt small businesses and smokers trying to kick the habit.
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the surgeon general's name.