As the FDA Prepares to Ban E-Cigarette Flavors, the Government's Own Data Contradict Wild Claims About Adolescent Nicotine Addiction

The ban's supporters falsely claim that "a whole generation of young people" is "addicted to these products."


According to Thomas Ylioja, a "smoking cessation expert" quoted by CBS News, the latest survey data on e-cigarette use by teenagers show "we have a whole generation of young people who are addicted to these products." That premise has been endorsed by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and it is the rationale for the ban on flavored e-cigarettes that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to impose any day now. Yet it is demonstrably false.

In the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), according to an article published yesterday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 27.5 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month. That translates into 4.1 million teenagers who were "current" e-cigarette users. But how many of them were "addicted to these products"?

Among past-month users, the supplementary tables in the JAMA article show, 34.2 percent reported vaping on 20 or more days in the previous month, while 21.4 percent said they vaped every day. In other words, less than 6 percent of high school students were daily vapers. That represents about 877,000 high school students who might reasonably be described as "addicted to these products," plus another 106,000 or so middle school students who also were vaping every day. If you include all "frequent" e-cigarette users (those who reported vaping on 20 or more days in the previous month), the totals rise to 1.4 million and 216,000, respectively. That's a significant phenomenon, but it hardly qualifies as "a whole generation of young people who are addicted to these products."

Who are these e-cigarette addicts, and what would they be doing if they weren't vaping? A recent analysis of NYTS data, reported in the online journal Qeios, found that frequent use was rare among teenagers who had never smoked. The rate was 0.1 percent in 2017 and 1 percent in 2018. It may be higher this year, since the incidence of frequent use among all high school students rose from 5.8 percent in 2018 to 9.4 percent in 2019. But the general pattern is almost certainly similar: Frequent use (and therefore daily use) is overwhelmingly concentrated among teenagers who have also smoked.

Does that pattern indicate that vaping makes teenagers more likely to smoke? By and large, no. "While it may well be the case that in some individual instances initial trying of an e-cigarette led on to trying and using cigarettes, the data strongly suggest that this is not the dominant pattern observed at the level of the whole population," the authors of the Qeios study wrote. "Among high school students we found that, for the great majority of those with any substantial cigarette smoking history, cigarettes were the first tobacco product tried, prior to any use of e-cigarettes."

An analysis of data from the Monitoring the Future survey published this week in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research likewise casts doubt on the fear that vaping leads to smoking. After "accounting for the propensity for using e-cigarettes based on 14 risk factors," the researchers found that "e-cigarette use does not appear to be associated with current, continued smoking." Instead, they said, "the apparent relationship between e-cigarette use and current conventional smoking is fully explained by shared risk factors, thus failing to support claims that e-cigarettes have a causal effect on concurrent conventional smoking among youth."

To the contrary, the NYTS data suggest that vaping is replacing smoking among teenagers. "In 2019," the JAMA article notes, "the prevalence of self-reported current e-cigarette use was high among US high school and middle school students, while self-reported current cigarette smoking among high school students has declined to historic lows."

Might there be a connection between those two opposing trends? The FDA is remarkably incurious about that question, even though it goes to the heart of the public health justification for its ban on flavored e-cigarettes. We do know that frequent e-cigarette use is concentrated among teenagers who also have smoked. We also know that the downward trend in smoking among teenagers and young adults accelerated as e-cigarettes became more popular.

Last August the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in a report on results from its National Survey on Drug Use and Health, acknowledged the likely role of e-cigarettes in reducing smoking rates. "Fewer than 1 in 6 people aged 12 or older in 2018 were past month cigarette smokers," it noted. "Cigarette use generally declined between 2002 and 2018 across all age groups. Some of this decline may reflect the use of electronic vaporizing devices ('vaping'), such as e-cigarettes, as a substitute for delivering nicotine."

The whole point of the FDA's flavor ban is to make e-cigarettes less appealing. But if the result is that teenagers who are vaping start smoking instead, the FDA will be hurting the very population it claims to be helping, since conventional cigarettes are indisputably much more dangerous than their smokeless, tobacco-free competitors. And that's leaving aside the ban's likely impact on the millions of American adults who have switched from smoking to vaping, some of whom are apt to switch back once the products they overwhelmingly prefer are no longer legally available.

The JAMA report notes that the popularity of mint and menthol flavors among teenaged vapers rose between 2018 and 2019, although fruit flavors remained the favorite. Another JAMA article published the same day, based on data from the Monitoring the Future survey, likewise noted that mint is now the most popular flavor among teenagers who use Juul, the leading e-cigarette brand. Both articles imply that it would therefore be reckless for the FDA to exempt mint (and perhaps also menthol) from its flavor ban.

But the reason for the rising popularity of mint pods seems pretty clear: Last fall Juul stopped selling flavors other than mint, menthol, and tobacco to retailers, limiting other varieties to its online store (which as of last month is no longer carrying them either). While other companies continued to sell Juul-compatible pods in the restricted flavors, Juul's decision surely had an impact on the availability of flavors other than mint, menthol, and tobacco. If the FDA bans mint, you can be sure that menthol will become more popular among teenaged vapers. If the ban includes menthol as well as mint, more teenagers will suddenly be using tobacco pods. Will that show that nothing short of an outright ban on e-cigarettes is necessary?

More and more teenagers are vaping, the FDA observes, so the government needs to do something. But what that thing should be depends partly on the harm caused by the rise in adolescent vaping, which in turn depends on the extent of addiction among teenagers who otherwise never would have tried nicotine and the likelihood that they will transition to smoking.

The FDA has not shown much interest in either of those issues, instead conflating past-month e-cigarette use with addiction and simply assuming that e-cigarettes are a gateway to the real thing, notwithstanding the lack of evidence to support that hypothesis. Worse, the FDA has paid hardly any attention to the harm caused by its response to underage vaping, which will lead to more use of potentially tainted black-market products and more smoking-related disease and death. You cannot weigh the costs and benefits of a policy if you ignore its unintended but predictable consequences.

NEXT: When Ranked-Choice Voting Comes to New York City, Expect More Voter Participation, Not Radical Changes

E-cigarettes Vaping Teenagers Cigarettes Tobacco Public Health Harm Reduction FDA

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.

Please to post comments

18 responses to “As the FDA Prepares to Ban E-Cigarette Flavors, the Government's Own Data Contradict Wild Claims About Adolescent Nicotine Addiction

  1. There is no constitutional authority to ban any product or service.

    Its why the Prohibitionists needed the 18th Amendment to ban alcohol.

    1. The FDA can ban any tobacco product it wants, except for cigarettes under the smoking prevention and tobacco control act of 2009. Also, cities and states are free to ban whatever products they want.

      1. Your authoritative citation fell off.

        States don’t have plenary powers and therefore neither do cities. States have an easier time amending their state constitutions but no state that I know of yet has created themselves a power to ban products and services.

        1. While the federal government was not intended to be able to institute outright bans on products (SCOTUS’ baffling expansive interpretation of the Commerce Clause notwithstanding) states most assuredly have always possessed the power to ban any product that doesn’t implicate a constitutional right with its use. The 18th amendment that you correctly cite was needed for nationwide prohibition of alcohol wasn’t needed for the prohibition part, it was required to make it nationwide. There were plenty of dry cities before the 18th amendment passed, though their dryness was relative given the ease with which booze could be purchased from neighboring jurisdictions. Not all of them were in the south, even – Argyle, NY was dry from before prohibition until relatively recently, iirc.

          1. States dont have plenary power to do whatever they want.

            States have their power limited by their state constitutions, the US Constitution, and the BoR.

  2. “27.5 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month”

    27.5 percent equals ‘entire’.
    This is the math that will pay for the fascist nationalization of the entire health care industry disguised as “Medicare for all”.

    1. Who needs data and facts when you have feelz? There’s always been this pedophilic desire to protect the “innocence” of kids among the nannies. A child, by the way, can be anyone under 25 according to them.

  3. “FDA Prepares to Ban E-Cigarette Flavors”

    Just like Reason supports banning other choices for the service of government ! It supports coercive monopolies built upon banning !!

  4. I enjoy traveling! From every city I visit, I always bring something beautiful and special to me. To always have bright thoughts, I refused to part with travel even when I work. Therefore, in order not to be sad about the vacation, I ordered myself a double hemisphere world map from Texelprintstore.com. I always rest, even at work!

    1. And Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself.

  5. If you think that these vaping kids wouldn’t be smoking cigarettes if vaping were banned, you’re a moron.

    It wasn’t that long ago that I was 15 years old in high school with EASY access to cigarettes. It was insanely easy to get them despite the restrictions and, the restrictions made cigarettes interesting an attractive despite how monumentally stupid smoking is.

    1. Growing up my friends would tell me to just pay a guy twice the cost of a pack of smokes and he’ll go in and get you a pack. I learned if you asked to give him a BJ he’d buy you a carton, some beer, and let you watch dirty movies with him at his house. I still get a Christmas card from him every year.

      I’m sure ecigs operate in the same manner.

  6. They government is ‘incurious’ about this subject because it directly harms their fiscal situation, and you can bet your ass they aren’t going to let that slide.

    The only outcome they’ll be happy with is taxing vape products exactly the same as Tobacco is now. This is their way of twisting arms before making a deal, and to get the public on their side through outright lies and manipulation of data.

  7. Would the impending ban affect tank vaping? Would it affect nicotine-free vapes?

    1. From what I gather it would be anything like a Juul, but who knows. It seems like all the talk is from the ones sold behind counters at stores like gas stations. All-in-one devices.

  8. And when the defacto FDA ban on Vapor Products comes to light in May 2020, youth will turn to cigarettes for nicotine and they will say that vaping caused these youth to start smoking by showing that they used to vape and now they smoke. It’s all a part of the master plan…

    1. Buy Altria stock.

  9. “A certain section of medical opinion, in late years, has succumbed to the messianic delusion. Its spokesmen are not content to deal with the patients who come to them for advice; they conceive it to be their duty to force their advice upon everyone, including especially those who don’t want it. That duty is purely imaginary. It is born of vanity, not of public spirit. The impulse behind it is not altruism, but a mere yearning to run things.”
    —H.L. Mencken

Comments are closed.