Dramatic Coverage of E-Cigarettes Has Negative Policy and Public Health Implications

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Posted by Paul Blair on Tuesday, August 26th, 2014, 3:38 PM PERMALINK


Pundits with little concern for public health have developed clickable narratives about e-cigarettes and vapor products that miss the fact that they are an innovation that should be celebrated. The fact that annually, more than 400,000 people die prematurely from smoking tobacco cigarettes is rarely a focal point for articles about e-cigarettes or vapor products. And unlike the latter, tobacco cigarettes can have negative health effects if used as directed.

Perhaps the stories about tobacco cigarettes have grown old since everyone knows they cause deadly diseases. Perhaps the “newness” of e-cigarettes, which have a similar appearance to tobacco ones, makes comparing them an easy task. But to neglect that not a single person has died to date from properly using an e-cigarette or vapor product is a disservice to our duty to celebrate technological innovation.

New technology often hits small bumps in the road, especially when electricity is involved. Take Tesla, for example. This year the company recalled 29,000 wall adaptors for the Model S after a cord or wall outlet caught fire. The recalls occurred in the midst of a federal investigation into three of the cars bursting into flames after running over something on the road. After the investigation, Tesla made modifications to ensure the risk was minimized.

Fortunately for consumers, legislators and bureaucrats weren’t clamoring to tax the products out of existence as a result of the supposed risk of spontaneous combustion. E-cigarette and vapor product consumers aren’t as lucky.

More than 17 states in the past year have tried to impose onerous and unnecessary taxes on e-cigarettes and vapor products. Proposals ranged from adding a 95% wholesale tax in Washington to adding a 5-cent per mL of e-liquid tax in North Carolina. These taxes were on top of the sales tax, which the products are already subject to.

Like the Model S, a few of these products have had improper use issues. But, the dramatization of minor incidents has serious public policy implications. The public is still being introduced to the product, but is now bombarded by headlines at Mashable like “E-Cigarettes Liquid Nicotine: Toxic, Unregulated, and Overhyped” and “Deadly E-Cigarette Explosions Add to Health Hazards of Vaping.” Both headlines employ a common rationale used against market-disrupting products: until there are hundreds of scientific studies concluding the products are absolutely and unequivocally safe, scare tactics (and headlines) will be a popular press coverage tool, despite the negative policy or health consequences.

In Congressional hearings, proponents of more regulations, like Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa.) have used the “fear of the unknown risk” argument to urge for Congressional and bureaucratic action to limit the industry’s growth. But while there isn’t much actually being accomplished in Washington, D.C., at the state level, countless legislators have jumped to action, to the detriment of those looking for an easier and healthier way to quit smoking.

If focus is going to be given to a few mishaps with overheated batteries, perhaps some context is necessary. After all, lithium ion batteries like the ones contained in many vapor products have a storied history that plays straight into the need for dramatization.

Less than 10 years ago, recalls from nearly every laptop manufacturer in the United States were issued when a small number of batteries overheated. No one called for an additional $1000 tax to be tacked onto Apple’s iBooks, or wrote about the toxic nature of computer usage. The failure of a select few products was fairly attributed to the need for technological tweaks in the batteries selected for use, not the utter failure of laptops to provide a safe environment for Internet cruising and gaming. 

The same isn’t true for e-cigarettes and vapor products. Federal regulators and state legislators are pushing for massive tax hikes that will cripple the industry and stymie growth, to the detriment of public health.  That is because vivid news headlines have an influence over public policy.

It’s time the press, pundits, and lawmakers give e-cigarettes a fair shot at helping cigarette smokers quit. To do this, the press needs to tone down the dramatization of product mishaps. Lawmakers should end the needless and illogical efforts to kill the industry with new tax hikes that treat these products as “other tobacco products.” Millions of lives are on the line. 

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