During a public meeting of California's official tobacco committee, formed largely to divvy up the proceeds of a large tobacco-tax hike approved by voters in 2016, commissioners bemoaned the small number of smokers who took advantage of official Food and Drug Administration-approved products that help smokers quit their deadly habit. Some people use nicotine gum, patches, and nasal sprays, but not enough to satisfy the regulators.
The next item on their agenda was vaping. Large numbers of ex-smokers do in fact use these e-cigarettes and vape pens, which are 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes, according to a well-respected British public health agency. Without any sense of irony, the commissioners sought ways to stamp out this menace—and one insisted that vaping was just another form of smoking. I chalked it up to a frustrating Puritanism among health officials.
The great Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." The rub against vaping, and other smokeless tobacco products, is that people enjoy it. Nicotine addicts get their nicotine buzz, have an excuse to take a break from work and chat with other "smokers," yet avoid most of the ill effects of smoking. It's a great example of how the marketplace promotes public health better than government hectorers.
Indeed, California lawmakers, at the state and local level, have been waging a war against vaping products for several years. San Francisco has outright banned the sale of e-cigarettes, even as it embraces marijuana retailers and promotes safe-injection sites for hard-core drug users. Other localities target vaping by forbidding flavored-tobacco sales. Because virtually all vape liquids are flavored, this becomes a de facto ban. Los Angeles County now is advancing such a measure.
The latest news has energized health activists who already want to banish vaping. More than 500 people have contracted a lung-related disorder tied to vaping, with 90 of them in California. Eleven people have died nationwide and two have died in our state. This troubling news has led officials in Michigan and New York to temporarily ban sales of vaping products. It even led the Trump administration, which usually is immune to such hysteria, to direct the FDA to ban vape sales.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see California officials take an unusually restrained approach. "There are numerous unknown factors at this time, and due to the uncertainty of the exact cause, it is our recommendation that consumers refrain from vaping until the investigation has concluded," said Acting Health Officer Charity Dean. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order directing state health officials to launch a public awareness campaign to educate people "about the health risks of vaping nicotine and cannabis products."
That's exactly what health officials should do. They're not supposed to insist on abstinence for all products and behaviors that are less than ideal, but to urge caution while researchers figure out what is going on. The new illnesses aren't necessarily tied to commercially available vaping products, but may be the result of people who use vape pens in ways that they weren't designed to be used.
Investigations theorize that the illnesses might be related to—and, yes, I'm hedging because no one knows anything definitive yet—black-market vape cartridges that use marijuana-based oils. "Illegal cannabis dispensaries sell unregulated and untested cannabis products and absolutely should not be used," according to a statement from the California health agency. It's absurd to ban legitimate vaping products if illegitimate ones are to blame.
If cities, counties, and states ban the sales of commercially tested products, then underground products will become more prevalent. We apparently have to constantly relearn the lessons of Prohibition. When the sale of spirits, wine, and beer were criminalized, people bought underground hooch. They often got sick and died. We wouldn't blame legal spirits for illnesses caused by bathtub gin.
What about the epidemic of teen vaping?
It's a serious problem, but not that different than what teens have been doing forever. When I was a teen-ager, my friends snuck outside of school to smoke cigarettes, drink beer and smoke joints. We don't outlaw the sales of wine and flavored vodka—or firearms or marijuana, for that matter—to adults because young people might get them from older siblings or friends. I'm not downplaying concerns, but the best approach is to enforce age-limit laws and try to teach our kids not to do insanely stupid things.
Let's calm down and see where the evidence takes us. But one part of the debate needs to remain in focus: vaping is a safer—not safe, but safer—alternative to smoking cigarettes. Nearly a half-million people die a year in the United States from tobacco-related illnesses. We should not eliminate one promising way to slash that depressing number, even if vaping does give consternation to health nannies who prefer that we inhale nothing but air.
This column was first published by the Orange County Register.