Lawmakers’ best intentions on vaping could cost lives
Lawmakers typically have a bias for action. When they perceive a social problem, they quickly draft legislation—however flawed—to try to address it. It’s their job, but sometimes their cures are worse than the disease, which reminds me of a quote from Jurassic Park: “Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”
Fortunately, no Louisiana legislators are mulling an effort to bring extinct killer dinosaurs back to life, but a quick perusal of the new bill filings reveals a slew of problematic measures. One in particular jumps out—HB 179—which aims to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarette products. While this may seem innocuous at first glance, it will spectacularly backfire if passed.
Rep. William “Bill” Wheat Jr., R-Ponchatoula, introduced the proposed flavor ban, and while it’s not imminently clear why he filed the measure, I’d wager that he did it with the noblest intentions. Proponents of similar bills in other states tend to justify them as an attempt to discourage youths from getting hooked on nicotine.
To be absolutely clear, kids should never use any nicotine products. Period. For years, it was understandably illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to obtain or use such products, and due to a 2019 federal law, the minimum age to purchase and use them rose to 21.
So the government already has the tools in place to prevent underage tobacco usage. They just need to enforce the law, but how can lawmakers encourage adult users to quit smoking? That’s been a longstanding conundrum that has confounded public health officials.
As it stands, adult tobacco use is a scourge in Louisiana. Nearly 22 percent of Louisianans smoke cigarettes, and roughly 7,200 die per year due to tobacco-related illnesses. Abstinence-only approaches have failed many adults, and traditional cessation products, like nicotine patches, gum and lozenges, have an underwhelming track record of helping people quit for good.
Meanwhile, e-cigarettes have demonstrated great utility without the same high risk profile of combustible cigarettes. For starters, Public Health England found e-cigarettes 95 percent less dangerous than combustible cigarettes because they don’t burn tobacco—a process that releases thousands of chemicals, including carcinogens.
What’s more, studies have shown that e-cigarettes have become one of the leading tools smokers use to kick the habit, and e-cigarettes are a more effective quit tool than the aforementioned nicotine replacement therapies.
The nicotine flavors Wheat is targeting are critically important to e-cigarettes’ continued success as a quit tool for adults. A 2018 study found, “Adult frequent e-cigarette users in the USA who have completely switched from smoking cigarettes to using e-cigarettes are increasingly likely to have initiated e-cigarette use with non-tobacco flavors and to have transitioned from tobacco to non-tobacco flavors over time.” Researchers concluded, “Restricting access to non-tobacco e-cigarette flavors may discourage smokers from attempting to switch to e-cigarettes.”
The sad truth about HB 179 is that, if ratified, not only will it likely harm public health by discouraging smokers from quitting, but it could also foster a dangerous illicit market to the detriment of Louisianans. Clear evidence of this can be seen in Massachusetts.
The Bay State banned flavored e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes a handful of years ago, and policymakers learned an age-old lesson: banning products doesn’t eliminate demand for them. People in Massachusetts still vape, and such prohibitions create a fertile environment for cross-state smuggling and illicit markets.
“The increase in seizures of flavored [electronic nicotine delivery system] products and menthol cigarettes combined with the decrease in revenue for cigarettes […] likely indicates increased cross-border smuggling of these products,” reads a recent Massachusetts Multi-Agency Illegal Tobacco Task Force report. In fact, in fiscal year 2021, state authorities seized over 100,000 e-cigarette products.
Losing out on state revenue due to interstate smuggling poses a problem to government budgets, but the rise of illicit markets due to these bans risks public health. In order to meet demand for flavored products, there’s an incentive for enterprising individuals to create and sell unregulated products on the underground market. However, these could very well be inadvertently adulterated with dangerous chemicals—perhaps leading to illness and even death.
I appreciate Wheat’s concerns, and believe that he proposed it with Louisianans’ well-being in mind. Nevertheless, HB 179 should raise some serious alarms and it’s important to not let good intentions come at the expense of public health. While the bill might not lead to the horrors of Jurassic Park, it could lead to a nightmare of another kind.