In an interesting twist from the usual reasoning in public health, anti-vaping advocates are promoting the enactment of policies that ban vaping in public places not because secondhand vaping has been shown to have serious health hazards, but because it hasn’t been proven to be benign.
In an opinion piece published in Tobacco Control, Dr. Simon Chapman and colleagues support a ban on vaping in public places because we don’t know yet whether secondhand vaping is harmful. The authors write that:
“those advocating for vaping to be allowed in smoke-free public places centre their case on gossamer-thin evidence that vaping emissions are all but benign and therefore pose negligible risks to others akin to inhaling steam from showers, kettles or saunas. This is likely to be baseless. Unlike vapourised water, electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS) emissions comprise nicotine, carbonyls, metals, organic volatile compounds, besides particulate matter, and putative carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon. … Importantly, the short time span since the advent of ENDS and the latency of candidate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases that may be caused or exacerbated by ambient exposure to ENDS emissions preclude definitive risk inference. Taking the current immature evidence as a proof of safety and using it to advocate for policy that allows ENDS indoors could prove reckless.”
The only known evidence of the hazards of secondhand vaping that the article is able to cite is that exhaled e-cigarette aerosol is “not harmless water vapor.” And the only evidence it presents showing that vaping can result in high levels of particulate exposure is from the measurement of particle concentrations at a “vapefest,” where literally hundreds of vapers are present in an enclosed location.
The Rest of the Story
In all the time that I spent lobbying for smoke-free bars and restaurants because of substantial evidence of life-threatening public health harm, little did I know that at a time in the future, we would be advocating for vape-free environments because a potential exposure was “not harmless.” Little did I know that we would be supporting bans on a behavior in private facilities (like restaurants) because we did not have definitive evidence that the behavior in question was benign.
I thought it was the other way around. I always thought that to justify interfering with individual rights and freedom as well as business owners’ autonomy, we had to demonstrate that there was a substantial public health hazard. These anti-vaping advocates suggest that it is the other way around. In order not to ban vaping, we have to prove that it is not harmful. In my view, this is antithetical to the justification for public health regulation.
In order to justify societal policy that interferes with individual freedom and autonomy, we should be required to document – with reasonable evidence – that a significant public health hazard exists. We don’t just ban everything that may or may not have significant risks and wait until behaviors are proven to be benign before we allow them.
When I testified at public hearings in support of smoke-free bars and restaurants, opponents would often argue that I only wanted to ban smoking in these workplaces because I was annoyed by smoke and that it didn’t matter if secondhand smoke was actually known to be harmful. I countered this by explaining that in tobacco control, we respect individual rights and autonomy, including that of business owners, and that we would not call for a ban on smoking in these establishments in the absence of significant evidence that secondhand smoke exposure represents a substantial public health hazard.
What bothers me about this article, and about the campaign to ban vaping in public places generally, is that it essentially proves our opponents to be right. We aren’t basing our support for bans on vaping on the presence of substantial evidence of a public health hazard. Instead, we’re basing our support for these bans on the absence of substantial evidence that there is a public health hazard. If there were sufficient evidence to know that secondhand vaping is a significant public health hazard, this would be a no-brainer. So in essence, it is the lack of evidence of known health effects that is the basis of current campaigns.