A virtual summit in the UK next week aims to set the record straight: If you think smoking is bad, you’re right. But if you think attacking alternatives like e-cigarettes will make things better, you’re really wrong.
“The E-Cigarette Summit UK comes at an historical time for global tobacco policy, where restrictive bans and higher taxation on e-cigarettes has become the prevailing direction for tobacco control, with the emphasis on restricting big tobacco from addicting the next generation,” the event’s organizers said in a statement.
In this country, some public health policymakers want to treat alternatives to traditional cigarettes — vaping, snus, and heat-not-burn technology – like smoking.
“In the U.S., the government has either been mum on smokers switching to e-cigarettes or nicotine patches and heated tobacco products, or they’ve been hostile towards such switching,” says Michelle Minton, Senior Fellow at Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). “Once you get outside of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the information trickled down to lawmakers, to a lot of journalists, to public health advocates, is this message that switching isn’t quitting, that e-cigs are no less harmful than smoking, which is absurd.”
In Great Britain, this is a very different approach.
‘Public Health England has done a stellar job, not only of evaluating the safety, which has very low risk, but also the efficacy of helping adult smokers quit,” says Jeff Stier of Taxpayers Protection Alliance. “The government evaluated the science and said, ‘These products are approximately 95 percent less harmful than combustible cigarettes.’ And the Public Health agency of the government not only encouraged smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, but they also assisted them.”
Part of the reason why e-cigarettes or vaping – the act of using an electronic cigarette – gets a bad wrap in the U.S. has to do with the E-cigarette or Vaping Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI), which made a lot of headlines before the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Legislators and regulators around the country tried to say there was this serious danger from vaping,” says Stier, who crafted health and environmental policy in the Office of the Mayor during the Giuliani administration in New York City. “Well, it was vaping illegal marijuana hash oil that was adulterated and not vaping nicotine e-cigarettes.”
A distinction was never made, and because of that “added misperception that has not been fully corrected,” Stier says people recall that ‘Oh, yeah, there is something dangerous about these e-cigarettes.’
The Biden administration has an opportunity to set the record straight and promote e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking. However, the odds of that happening are slim at best.
“The Build Back Better bill has a huge ‘sin tax’ on e-cigarettes, and it would be a higher tax on e-cigarettes than the existing tax on combustible cigarettes,” says Stier. “Economists will always say that if you’re going to have an excise tax or a ‘sin tax,’ the tax should be commensurate with the sin.”
If traditional cigarette smoking is more harmful, then Stier says that makes traditional or combustible cigarettes the big sin and e-cigarettes the little sin.
“They’re much less harmful and the UK says they’re not a sin, they’re an advantage,” says Stier. “Economists might say you should get a tax credit for using an e-cigarette if we’re going to use incentives.”
It is those incentives that Minton points to as a reason why the UK has been successful at helping consumers quit traditional cigarette smoking.
“When it comes to climate change, we’re not saying ‘destroy the car companies,’” Minton notes. Instead, we are pushing automakers to manufacture so-called greener products like electric vehicles (EVs), while also encouraging consumers to switch by giving them tax credits or discounts to purchase EVs that are deemed less harmful.
“There’s no reason we should not be doing this when it comes to preventing the death and harm that comes from smoking,” says Minton.
And what about claims that products like vaping or heat-not-burn are just as dangerous as smoking?
“Quite frankly, at this point, it’s a lie for anyone who says that,” Minton said.