AEI scholar Dr. Sally Satel has yet another must-read article in today’s Wall Street Journal about how the moral panic over e-cigarettes is clouding judgment on an important public health issue—how do we help the roughly 37.8 million American adults who currently smoke cigarettes quit the habit for good or switch to less harmful e-cigarette products.

Satel explains that the popularity of one particular type of e-cigarette, called JUUL, with teens is making some in the public health and political spheres unjustly demonize these products writ large and for all demographics–even for people desperate to find a smoking cessation product that works for them (see my testimony before the FDA on why e-cigarettes are the preferred method of smoking cessation product for women). Satel writes:

…instead of cheers for a blockbuster of American ingenuity that’s saving lives, JUUL has sparked a moral panic. A Harvard pediatrician likened teen use of JUUL to “bioterrorism . . . a massive public-health disaster.” Last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer demanded that the Food and Drug Administration douse the “fire of e-cig addiction among New York adolescents.

Of course, Satel agrees that teens shouldn’t vape. So does JUUL, which even supports raising the smoking age to 21 (not a policy with which I agree) and has pledged $30 million to fight underage vaping. But, as Satel spells out, we can’t forget that “there is no adult activity that some kids won’t do.” To suggest otherwise is to put your head in the sand and just hope your kid is a perfect angel. Satel offers some sobering statistics on why this just isn’t the case for most kids:

According to the 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, almost 1 in 5 high school seniors reported getting drunk within the previous month, while 22.9% used cannabis during the same time frame. Only 11% said they had vaped. Two major government surveys show that regular e-cigarette use by people who have never smoked is under 1%.

Some 4.2% of high-school seniors report smoking conventional cigarettes daily, according to Monitoring the Future, and 9.7% reported smoking at least once in the previous month. These are “the high-risk youth” we need to worry about, said Lynn T. Kozlowski, a tobacco expert at the University of Buffalo, at last month’s E-Cigarette Summit in Washington. Youth who have started to smoke, he added, “need to know the real costs of different nicotine products.”

That’s the critical point (something Carrie Lukas also wrote about here). Teens and parents need to understand that traditional cigarettes are far more dangerous than vaping products and it’s immoral, unethical and just plain outrageous for anti-smoking activists, government agencies and politicians to hide or distort the facts about vaping being safer. Satel writes: 

Better they are told that the smoke they are inhaling comes with 7,000 chemicals, dozens of them in carcinogenic levels, plus carbon monoxide. And if they can’t or won’t quit, they should know that vaping, according to the Royal College of Physicians, is about 95% less hazardous than cigarette smoking. 

Of course parents prefer to give the “just don’t start!” advice, but if they do, perhaps the better advice is that given by David B. Abrams of New York University’s College of Global Public Health, who Satel quotes in her piece. He says: 

If the choice is between getting addicted to nicotine and dying from cigarettes or getting addicted without dying from e-cigarettes, the answer is obvious.

Satel concludes by warning that “Overheated worries about youth vaping are threatening to obscure the massive potential benefits to the nation’s 38 million cigarette smokers. Two million have already quit thanks to e-cigarettes. Vaping products are already the most widely used quit-smoking tool.”

We should all be in favor of providing smokers innovative products that can help them quit smoking as well as urging teens never to start smoking or vaping. Each of these goals can be pursued simultaneously and without ridding marketplace of products that can actually accomplish the first.