FDA Lies About Vaping While the CDC Inches Toward the Truth

Federal officials deny big reductions in adolescent tobacco use and obscure the harm-reducing potential of e-cigarettes.



Between 2011 and 2016, according to survey data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking by teenagers fell by half, cigar smoking fell by a third, pipe smoking fell by two-thirds, and smokeless tobacco use fell by a quarter. Yet according to the Food and Drug Administration, there were "no significant declines in overall high school tobacco use" during that period. How is that possible?

Let me answer that riddle by posing another one. If you call an e-cigarette a tobacco product, and the incidence of past-month vaping among high school students more than sextupled from 2011 to 2016, how does that affect the trend in overall tobacco use? The answer is that it does not affect the trend in overall tobacco use at all, because calling an e-cigarette a tobacco product does not make it a tobacco product.

Yet that is what FDA does, partly for regulatory reasons. E-cigarette fluid often contains nicotine derived from tobacco, which supposedly transforms a tobacco-free product into a tobacco product, giving the FDA authority to regulate it. The FDA maintains that pretense even when reporting what is happening in the real world. The result, as Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel notes on his tobacco policy blog, is an alternative reality where dramatic declines in adolescent tobacco consumption never happened. The CDC plays the same game, falsely claiming "current use of any tobacco product did not change significantly" among high school students from 2011 to 2016.

This blatant misrepresentation magnifies a problem (underage tobacco use) that the FDA and the CDC are charged with addressing, making their work seem more urgent and more worthy of funding. It also conflates e-cigarettes, a noncombustible, tobacco-free alternative to conventional cigarettes, with products that are far more dangerous, obscuring the enormous harm-reducing potential of this innovation. By lumping e-cigarettes in with tobacco products, the FDA and CDC may hope to scare kids away from them. But the message to current smokers—that they might as well keep puffing away, since all these nicotine sources are essentially the same—is potentially deadly.

A new CDC webpage about e-cigarettes gives some ground on that score, conceding that "e-cigarettes have the potential to benefit adult smokers who are not pregnant if used as a complete substitute for regular cigarettes and other smoked tobacco products." But by insisting that e-cigarettes be a "complete substitute," the CDC dismisses the health benefits of smoking less, even if the number of cigarettes per day does not fall to zero.

"Dual use is not an effective way to safeguard your health," the CDC says. "Because smoking even a few cigarettes a day can be dangerous, quitting smoking completely is very important to protect your health." This slippery formulation deliberately obscures the fact that smoking a few cigarettes a day is less dangerous than smoking a pack or two a day. If e-cigarettes help smokers make that change, they are reducing tobacco-related harm.

The CDC's discussion of how the health hazards of vaping compare to those of smoking is similarly misleading. "Are e-cigarettes less harmful than regular cigarettes?" it asks. "Yes—but that doesn't mean e-cigarettes are safe. E-cigarette aerosol generally contains fewer toxic chemicals than the deadly mix of 7,000 chemicals in smoke from regular cigarettes. However, e-cigarette aerosol is not harmless. It can contain harmful and potentially harmful substances, including nicotine, heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds, and cancer-causing agents."

Sadly, it counts as an improvement that the CDC is willing to explicitly say e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes instead of dodging the question entirely. But you would not guess from its gloss that vaping is something like 95 percent safer than smoking, that potentially harmful substances in e-cigarette aerosol are typically present only in trace amounts, or that smokers who switch to vaping see big reductions in blood levels of toxins and carcinogens—at least as big as the reductions seen in smokers who switch to FDA-approved "nicotice replacement therapy" such as gum and patches.

The CDC now grudgingly accepts that smokers who switch to vaping are better off, but it still worries that nonsmokers will take up vaping. To deter them, the CDC inflates the risk posed by e-cigarettes, which also deters smokers from switching, even though that decision could save their lives. The only way out of this conundrum is one the CDC never seems to consider: Instead of slanting information in the hope of manipulating people's behavior, why not tell them the truth and let them make their own decisions?

NEXT: 'Experts' Fear Trump Will Talk to Kim Jong Un, New York Times Reports

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. This slippery formulation deliberately obscures the fact that smoking a few cigarettes a day is less dangerous than smoking a pack or two a day.

    I can’t wait for the CDC to admit this because it’s going to be the green light for this non-smoker to start smoking a few cigarettes a day.

  2. It’s one thing to criticize scientists for their un-scientific approach to statistics, but we’re talking about inquisitors on a holy mission from God. There’s a limit to how much resources you’re going to spend addressing a problem, a point where the cost is no longer worth the benefit, but there’s no limit to the amount of evil you can perpetrate in the name of combatting evil.

    1. What you consider a cost, they consider an income.

    2. The benefit is the power to control the lives of others. The cost is always worth it from the point of view of those seeking power.

  3. calling an e-cigarette a tobacco product does not make it a tobacco product.

    Are they using synthetic nicotine, or sourcing it from some non-tobacco plant?

    1. Ford Motor Corporation, producing fossil-fuel products since 1903.

      1. Kinda like how I’m a second-hand vegetarian because I eat things that eat plants.

        1. Technically, it’s solar fusion products all the way down.

    2. As I touched on below: Does sourcing my leather from a holstein cow make my couch a dairy-product?

  4. Vaping is tobacco use.

    Prostitution is sex trafficking.

    A measurable amount of alcohol is drunkenness.

    All drug use is abuse.

    Same old Puritans, only the costumes have changed.

  5. They will never take away the tobacco designation. There is too much dependence on tobacco taxation.

  6. Let them make their own decisions. Lol. That’s rich!

  7. Tell me again, which section of the constitution authorizes the FDA? The CDC?
    Don’t try the old ‘general welfare’ gag – there is no general welfare in any of this mess.
    No lieutenant welfare either.
    Not even private welfare.
    Hold on a minute, I might have stumbled onto something here. Do any of the people raving on about these personal choices happen to draw wages from the public treasury?

  8. Are the nicotine gums and patches tobacco products as well?

    1. Thumb’s up!

      I tried to post “Touche!” with the accent mark (without it it looks silly, as you can see), and this site’s silly software gave me this message: “Your comment does not appear to be written in an English script. Please comment in English.”

      OK: *%*#!

  9. Patches, gum, lozenges… all acceptable when it comes to advertising… But put up an ecig ad on FB and you’ll get banned.

    As long as they don’t take away my ecblend ejuice I am golden!

    1. E-cigs look like smoking. That makes them evil.

      1. The thing is some ejuice doesn’t even have nicotine in it.

    2. I know, if gum and patches have nicotine shouldn’t they be “tobacco products” too?

      It’s all about money.

      1. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the gums and patches were making a fortune from people who had ‘quit smoking’ but had a patch glued on them 24/7 or went through a box of gum a day.

        ‘Smoking Cessation’ my ass, I know people who have ‘quit’ for years who still chew a shit ton of that rather expensive gum.

  10. What’s with the defense of e-cigarettes? Is it primarily about personal liberties? Really, I’m just curious.

    As a researcher with colleagues who conduct smoking-cessation trials (i.e., intervention studies to help smokers quit using), I see pros and cons of e-cigs. On the one hand, they are manufactured by tobacco companies and are clearly being positioned as a next-generation substitute for cigarettes, with marketing and product development aimed at young people. Moreover, their long-term effects, including their potential as a gateway to smoking, are unknown. On the other hand, they appear to impart the benefits of nicotine replacement aids, such as patches, gum, and lozenges, while achieving greater behavioral appeal inasmuch as the act of vaping is far more similar to smoking than the aforementioned products.

    That said, scientists aren’t guilty of trying to control everyone’s lives, although they may be guilty of seeing a problem and over-focusing on fixing it. The thing is, smoking results in 480,000 deaths annually in the U.S. (by far the single largest cause of death) and costs $289 billion dollars per year in medical expenditures and lost productivity–that’s straight from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Who pays for that? Smokers, their loved ones, and the rest of us through higher health insurance premiums among other things. So, you can see why the National Institutes of Health would fund research on how to decrease tobacco use.

    1. Huh, so what you’re saying is no one should be allowed to drive?

      1. And while we’re at it, since you’ve established that everyone’s health is everyone else’s business, I’m curious what your BMI is. I think I’m going to need to change your diet, but don’t worry it’s for your own good!

        Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement

        The fact of the matter is the Government stands to lose a whole shit ton of revenue if people stop smoking. Would you call that a conflict of interest?

    2. But the sooner you die the less healthcare you use since something like 80% is spent on end of life care for the elderly.

    3. e-cigs are not tobacco use though! (did you read the article?)


    4. With the way that is written you actually expect people here to think you aren’t in bed with one of the organizations trying to control.

      Fuck off.

    5. So why is “they are manufactured by tobacco companies and are clearly being positioned as a next-generation substitute for cigarettes” in the negative column? It’s a positive if the tobacco companies remake themselves from cigarette companies to e-cigarettes.

      It’s only a negative if “tobacco companies are evil” and “evil companies shouldn’t earn money.” Those are moral judgments, not health ones.

  11. I will hence forth regard my leather couch as a dairy-product, which means I am owned a refund on my sales-tax.

  12. Nicotine is NOT a carcinogen. Addictive, yes, but does not cause cancer. Neither does glycerine or propylene glycol. These are the ingredients in e-cigarettes.

    Tars, ammonia, carbon monoxide, benzene, among others from flammable cigarettes do cause cancer.

    I smoked a pack a day for 55 years. I bought a vaporizer 4 years ago and won’t go back! A carton of cigarettes cost me $80. A bottle of fluid that lasts as long as a carton did, costs me $16. Between the savings and health benefit, to me that’s a no-brainer.

  13. Market solves problem
    Government lies and pretends it didn’t happen

  14. If they were intellectually consistent they would count all people that use nicotine gum and patches as “tobacco users” but they like those products since they come from their friends in the pharma industry.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.