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Why Banning Flavors Won’t Stop Teen Vaping


I started smoking when I was about 16. I smoked then and smoke now for one basic reason: I enjoy nicotine. Like hundreds of millions of human beings during the last half-millennia (longer among Native Americans), I really love the effect nicotine has on me. Judge me, don’t judge me, whatever, I don’t care. This is also why today’s teens vape at alarming rates. It’s about nicotine, not flavors.

The Trump administration’s decision to ban flavored vape products is very unlikely to reduce teen vaping rates. The big reason for this is that if kids want to taste bubble gum, they can buy, you know, bubble gum. No 15-year-old decides to take up vaping because the flavor is so awesome. This is an absurd notion.

The issue of vaping boils down to one essential conflict. The vaping industry touts itself as a life-saving alternative for adult smokers. And it probably is. There is near scientific consensus that vaping is less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes because the combustion of lighting a smoke on fire creates most of the harmful chemicals.

But the flip side is that this less harmful alternative has absolutely changed the game about youth adoption of nicotine products. Over the last two decades, teen adoption of nicotine had dropped to negligible levels. It just wasn’t much of a thing.

Vaping has changed that. A lot of kids are now vaping. Nicotine, that sneaky addictive chemical that I greet each day with, is back, bringing its mixture of serenity and purpose to a new generation. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made clear in a tweet that if the flavor ban is not effective, and it likely won’t be, the FDA will look at more drastic measures. This is a temporary reprieve for tobacco flavored products, not a lasting stamp of approval.

So the vape industry has to understand that they will lose this fight. Asked if they care more about weaning 40-something Americans like me away from cigarettes or millions of teens getting addicted, I’m gonna lose every time. And I probably should. I made my choice, I don’t regret it. But the PR guys and lobbyists who email me all the time are fooling themselves if they think most Americans are on their team.

When I talk to industry people about this, which happens fairly often, I tell them all the same thing. I say “You have to be in front of this. You have to spend $1 billion policing retailers to make sure they check the ID of everyone they sell to. If you find one incident where they don’t, that shop is permanently banned from selling the product.”

If this industry tries to play the Big Tobacco game of hemming and hawing, it will be destroyed. The vaping lobby consists almost entirely of me not responding to emails from a handful of lobbying agencies. It has no power, it has no constituency, it has no ability to move the public opinion needle. It’s losing, and if, as seems likely, its lost the Trump White House and the broader GOP, then it is simply dead in the water.

Vaping can play an important role in moving adults off traditional cigarettes. This would be a great public health boon, and the industry is great at playing up this angle. But it has also gotten a ton of kids hooked on nicotine. And pretending it hasn’t goes exactly nowhere. If towns and counties and states want to ban e-cigarettes because of youth adoption, they will do so with broad support.

The vaping industry is at a crossroad. A lot of people are making absurd amounts of money on the recent success of the product, especially among kids. This is not a sustainable model, nor the one the industry purports to hew to. They claim to be a quit smoking industry. Okay, be that. That we need, that is good.

If, on the other hand, it’s a “Get millions of kids hooked on nicotine” industry, then it deserves the dustbin. Banning flavors is irrelevant. It’s a nonsense measure. If the industry even hints at opposing it, then it deserves derision. No smoker like me whom they are hoping to help needs a crème brulee vape product.

Sure, get rid of the flavors. But it won’t get rid of the problem. Maybe vaping is as safe; the industry uses the term “less harmful.” My research suggests that is true. But we have no guarantees, and it is the industry’s responsibility to convince us. If they don’t, there is every reason for the government to step in.