While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced it needs more time to decide whether e-cigarettes could remain on the market, or should be banned, anti-smoking activists continue to accuse vaping companies of targeting teens to buy their products. The U.S. regulatory body recently halted more than one million nicotine vape products, challenging their safety for health and the need to protect youngsters from tobacco addiction. Public outcry over the risks of teen nicotine vaping dependence have overshadowed discussion of adult smoking cessation, which (obviously) saves lives. Part of that public outcry is driven by claims that vape companies deliberately target teens. Are these allegations based on the truth and supported by data? Catania Conversation speaks to Dr. Charles Gardner, a top expert on Tobacco Harm Reduction and Chief Executive Officer of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations (INNCO), an international NGO that supports the rights of over ninety eight million consumers in thirty-seven countries.
Anti-vaping supporters claim that the vaping industry targets teens to increase their revenue and get a “whole new generations hooked” with those devices. Do you agree?
There is a lot of misinformation in this field. So let’s step back and consider this allegation from an economic perspective. Imagine you are the Chief Executive Officer of a new vape company in the U.S. You commission a market analysis (as all new companies do, even if they make toothpicks). Your analysis will find there are 11 million legal adult vapers, and 34 million legal adult smokers, who could be interested in your products. Both, obviously, have a demonstrated willingness to pay. Infrequent users who don’t buy products are invisible to a market analysis. So your potential market is 45 million legal adults with a demonstrated willingness to pay.
According to the latest data, by March 2020, the total number of U.S. teen frequent users of nicotine vape products was 1 million. Frequent use is “20 or more days per month.” These are the only teens who may own a device and buy products. Three independent surveys all agree that teen vaping dropped another 30% during the pandemic. So that illegal teen “market” is less than 1 million kids whose primary source of income their allowances. So consider: Targeting teens would be evil, immoral, illegal, and an insane business strategy. But let’s imagine this CEO wants to do it anyway. They approach their Board and investors, and tell them, “we have decided to target teens.” The CEO would be cleaning out their desk in less than 10 minutes. This claim that vape companies target teens is profoundly implausible. It tests well in focus groups that are designed to find anti-vaping messages that inflame moral panic. But it has no basis in reality. This level of evil, immorality, illegal intent, embrace of “representational risk” and profoundly insane bustiness strategy simply does not exist.
Endorsed by a recent article on The Washington Post, which exposed how Big Tobacco “targeted children and conspired to hide damaging evidence” about combustible tobacco cigarettes during the 1980s-1990s, detractors say vaping products are now using the same tricks. Is this true?
There is no question that in the past, tobacco companies targeted teens. Getting kids hooked on cigarettes created long-term future benefit for them because their main cash cow is cigarettes, which have a 60% profit margin. Those immoral and illegal practices have been exposed, and are not up for debate. But that was 40 years ago. The people who did that are now dead or retired. Accusing the modern vape industry of the same tactics is, itself, a tactic to slander innovative safer nicotine products that save lives. And it is particularly ironic and irrational given the fact that U.S. teen vaping has dropped dramatically over the past two years, and total teen nicotine use (vaping plus smoking) has dropped 55% over the past two decades. The whole tobacco control field seems to have lost its way. It is no longer fighting to reduce preventable deaths from smoking-related cancer, heart and lung disease. It is fighting the tobacco industry and, through guilt-by-association, it is now fighting against the safer nicotine vape industry that has saved millions of lives by helping smokers quit (and thus not die).
For years, tobacco control experts have pushed the view that safer nicotine vape products are “tobacco products.” In its most recent publication, the World Health Organisation goes a step farther, claiming that liquid vapour is smoke. This is, literally, “Orwellian.” The vape industry has existed for just 15 years. It is young, and most senior executives in that industry truly believe they are fighting against Big Tobacco. Cigarettes sales to adults are their “target” market. Most of them are small firms. Ironically, all the misinformation and new regulations conspire to kill them. There is a very serious danger that over-zealous tobacco control policies will benefit deadly cigarette sales, and the vape products that Big Tobacco companies have recently acquired. Misinformation is at the core of this battle. Claims that vaping is the same as smoking are profoundly wrong. The goals and history of these two industries are as different as electric cameras and film cameras. Tobacco control policies are now working actively to prevent what should be a “Kodak moment” for deadly cigarettes.
“Quit or die” continues to be the main message from international tobacco control authorities. Vaping products and other safer nicotine products are assumed to be part of an evil Big Tobacco plot designed to keep customers hooked on nicotine. Is there a counter-narrative?
I suggest we demand “experts” answer four questions: First, are nicotine vapes (“e-cigarettes”) safer than smoking? Second, do they help smokers quit? Overwhelming evidence shows the answer to both questions is “yes.” Now, we need to pause here and realize: if these answers are both “yes,” then nicotine vapes are profoundly different from recreational drugs like alcohol or caffeine, which do not help people quit using something deadly, and thus save lives.
The 3rd question is: “How many people have quit smoking with these things so far?” It think it is strange that the only country on Earth that tracks this number and tells the public is the United Kingdom. Official U.K. government statements show that 2.3 million people have quit smoking because of e-cigarettes there. The U.S. population is five times larger. So expect a much larger number in the U.S.A. Now, is it not strange that U.S. health authorities don’t track this number and inform the public? Let me hint at a spoiler: The US CDC knows this number. It’s in their National Health Interview Survey.
The 4rth question is “how many teens are actually measurably physically dependent on nicotine vaping?” No one wants teens to vape nicotine. No one. We should be concerned about teen dependence because it means, literally, “difficult to quit.” Here, again, health authorities don’t track the right numbers. Not one U.S. government survey asks teens the most obvious question, “do you own a device?” And U.S. government health agencies only tell the public how many teens have vaped at-least-once in the past month. But how many vape nicotine daily? I would not assume all daily vapers are ‘hooked.’ U.S. teen daily vaping numbers are very low (5 times lower than binge drinking). And most of them smoked first.