- There is No ‘Epidemic’ of Youth Vaping, Only a Moral Panic - May 17, 2019
On September 12, 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publicly declared that vaping among youth was an “epidemic.” They issued more than 1,300 warning letters and civil money penalties to “retailers who illegally sold JUUL and other e-cigarette products to minors during a nationwide, undercover blitz of brick-and-mortar and online stores.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the official definition of an epidemic is: “The occurrence of more cases of disease than expected in a given area or among a specific group of people over a particular period of time.”
Despite FDA’s use of the word “epidemic,” vaping is not a disease, it is harm reduction. Or in the words of the FDA, “a less harmful alternative.”
Why would the FDA use such a word? Shock value.
On October 25, 2018, at the Food and Drug Law Institute’sTobacco Conference, in Washington, DC, the FDA announced a new advertising campaign called “The Real Cost.”
According to data presented, teens “don’t see using e-cigarettes as risky.” The campaign was designed to “shock” youth and snap teens out of this “cost-free” mentality.
The word “epidemic” was ad “copy tested with 300 youth” and had a “Perceived Effectiveness score of 4.17 out of 5.0.”
If vaping was truly an epidemic, why did it need to be ad copy tested? Why is the FDA, representing a “less harmful alternative” as an epidemic? FDA represents the interests of public health. Naming a harm reduction product as an epidemic does little to provide confidence to the general public regarding the safety and benefits of vaping.
The presentation goes on to say that “Copy testing revealed potential unintended consequences among adults, with the ad campaign leading more adults to perceive e-cigarettes as “equally or more harmful than cigarettes.”
All the while, public health organizations and the media coverage took notice and consistently use the word “epidemic,” a word the FDA has wrongfully endorsed, at the expense of public health.
There is no Epidemic. There is only a Moral Panic.
A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. Let us look at the facts and break down the data based on the 2018 NYTS (National Youth Tobacco Survey).
Has there been a substantial increase in vaping among high School Students, (>20-30 days, which is suggestive of dependence?) Yes.
In 2017, only 20 percent of current high school vapers used the products greater than 20-30 days, i.e frequent users, which is suggestive of dependence. That number grew to 28 percent in 2018.
These numbers look worrisome, but let’s put this data in the proper context.
Dr. Brad Rodu, a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute found: “FDA emphasized that 28% of high school vapers were frequent users in 2018. However, only 25% of underage vapers were frequent users, compared with 41% of legal vapers”
So, less than 25 percent of underage vapers, of the current 28 percent of high school vaper users, have started using e-cigarettes.
Is that the definition of an “Epidemic”? Let’s break down the data even further.
According to Dr. Rodu, “In the underage nonsmoking group, 57% of frequent vapers had smoked in the past. These youths had already smoked, which counters Dr. Gottlieb’s assertion that “e-cigarette use…threatens to hook an entire generation of kids into a lifetime of addiction.” Simply put, kids who use or try stuff, use or try other stuff.
Another important statistic, 71 percent of underage high school vapers source their e-cigarettes via friends, family and other individuals. 64 percent of legal high school vapers purchase their e-cigarettes from retailers.
When the FDA claims that retailers are hooking an entire generation of kids into a lifetime of addiction, this is far from what the actual data reveals and is nothing more than moral panic. The data clearly shows usage, but not in the context of claiming that vapor products are an “epidemic” with underage youth.
Should teenagers vape, text while driving, use marijuana, drink alcohol? Absolutely not. Demonizing vapor products only destroys public perception, scares adult smokers from converting, and financially harms small businesses.
The vast majority of vape shops are mom-and-pop, brick and mortar establishments. Many vape shop owners entered into this industry because they have personally experienced the damaging effects of combustible cigarettes.
The vape shop industry is represented, not by Big Tobacco, but small business owners. They have been, and are more than willing to work with state and local government to reduce underage youth usage of vaping products.
However, the volunteer efforts of industry advocates have been made more difficult by public health organizations who demonize the public perception of this life-saving product. And unfortunately, this is at the expense of the adult smoker, who has yet to convert to vaping.
Reforms to address underage use of e-cigarettes should include enforcement and strengthening of current laws to severely punish the bad actors that sell to underage youth. Implement regulatory policies that are fair and representative of the public health benefits of vaping. State and local government must work hand in hand with vape shop industry advocates to limit youth access and promote the less harmful alternative of vapor products to adult smokers.
My hope is that state advocacy leaders and consumers will use this data when talking to legislators and policymakers. Advocates need to counter these exaggerated numbers and “epidemic” narrative, presented by public health officials, who are either too lazy or too sympathetic to their ultimate goal: prohibition.
There is no Epidemic. There is only a Moral Panic.
Sherwin Mena (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President of the North Carolina Vaping Council (NCVC). Established in 2015, NCVC represents the interests of small vape shop owners in North Carolina.