Public confusion surrounding the e-cigarette industry is not an accident. No consumer product has experienced as uneven a level of government scrutiny as electronic cigarettes.
Unveiled at roughly the same time as the iPhone, e-cigs went from niche product to a $7 billion industry. As an alternative to traditional cigarettes, they were viewed as holding great potential to reduce smoking deaths. As youth vaping skyrockets and mysterious lung illnesses continue to mount, they become public health enemy No. 1.
Even President Donald Trump, no fan of regulation, has floated a ban on flavored e-cigs. Last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson ordered state health officials to develop a campaign to discourage youth vaping.
As vaping use accelerated, regulators were caught flat-footed as they tried to keep up with changing technology and purchasing habits. The Food and Drug Administration dragged its feet for a decade and allowed the industry to flourish with a minimum of oversight. There were plans to ban flavored vapes or require e-cigarette makers to demonstrate the health benefits, but those proposals went nowhere.
The confusion and mixed messages continued on the local level. As local health officials warned of potential dangers, a past St. Joseph City Council voted to remove vapes from enforcement in a citywide indoor smoking ban.
Now, the current council prepares to vote on a measure that would once again add e-cigarettes to the indoor smoking ban. Mayor Bill McMurray, a sponsor of the proposal, said new developments require a re-evaluation of the need to include vapes in a ban.
It’s possible the city is doing the right thing for the wrong reason here. An indoor ban in public spaces would do little to prevent additional lung illnesses, especially since health authorities haven’t pinpointed an exact cause yet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports nearly 1,300 vaping-related lung injuries, many of them involving teenagers or young adults.
The best way to curb teen vaping would be a ban on flavored vapes and restrictions on nicotine levels and marketing aimed at teenagers.
But the mystery of lung illnesses and the lack of regulation gives fuel to the argument to add e-cigs to the city ban. Those who vape will say it’s just harmless flavored water, but can they really vouch for that?
We know some of those who were hospitalized used THC-infused products. We know about the heavy metals in the aerosol. We know that some e-cigs are altered at home or on the black market to spew who knows what.
With so much uncertainty, with health authorities and regulators always seeming to be a step behind, the council would be wise to once again include e-cigs in the indoor smoking ban.