Vaping: Risky for Teens, But a Safe Target for the FDA

The Food and Drug Administration is very concerned about your children.

In what Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called a “historic” action, the FDA sent over 1,000 warning letters and issued over 100 fines to stores that have sold e-cigarettes to minors. More startling, the FDA warned the top five e-cig manufacturers to provide plans within 60 days to further curb use by teens or risk having the government remove "some or all of their flavored e-cig products from the market."

I’ll let the commissioner take it from here:

I use the word epidemic with great care. E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous — and dangerous — trend among teens. The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we're seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It's simply not tolerable.

Gathering Clouds

In the past decade or so, science and industry have brought us a bold new way to consume nicotine: vaping. Devices heat nicotine-infused oil, which is often fruit- or mint-flavored and which produces vapor inhaled by the user.

The lion’s share of the vaping market is e-cigarettes, including small, sleek, and exotically misspelled market leader Juul. There are also much larger vaping devices refillable with different oils, and DIY machines obsessed over by hobbyists.

E-cigarettes and their larger cousins deliver highly addictive nicotine, but without the carcinogens that make tobacco products so dangerous. That’s where it gets complicated. Preliminary research on this still somewhat-new product suggests it’s a possibly life-saving alternative for people already addicted to smoking, but not a good habit to be picked up by a novice.

Minor Threat

We can debate prohibition and age limits another time. Under today’s rules, stores should be checking IDs for e-cigarettes just like tobacco and alcohol. But is the health of teenagers the only driver of the FDA’s rather grandiose announcement?

First, let’s unpack the carefully chosen word “epidemic.” The most recent data I can find say that 11.7 percent of high school students have used an e-cigarette at least once in the past 30 days, eclipsing (perhaps eating into) the 7.6 percent using cigarettes.

The e-cig number is likely low: the data are a year old, teens notoriously under-report on these types of surveys, and parents to whom I’ve spoken insist usage is much higher.

But does it surpass the 30 percent of teens who reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days? Why did the recent FDA announcement not mention this epidemic, almost certainly more dangerous than vaping?

Join me, if you will, on a stroll through your local convenience store, where we’ll try to find some answers.

Man, Economy, and Vape

The chart below looks at sales revenue for a handful of the addictive or unhealthy products you’re likely to find at the corner store. For a moment, just picture the FDA threatening to remove any of these other products from shelves.

E-cigs may be growing fast, but their sales are still at least 20 times smaller than the other categories listed here.

Not so shockingly, with money comes influence. In 2017, the alcohol, food and beverage, and tobacco industries each spent over $20 million on lobbying. It’s hard to get an exact number for e-cigs, but Juul, said to control a whopping 70 percent of the industry, spent a much smaller $450,000.

One more thing: behind counters in my area of western Massachusetts, cigarettes are virtually hidden, e-cigarettes are stuck in a corner, and most prominently displayed are dozens of varieties of bright, flashy… scratch-off lottery tickets. That’s right, the $80+ billion per year item sold directly by the government.

E-cigarettes certainly carry with them some complicated health problems. But in terms of getting a big, flashy regulatory win, they are far less complicated than many arguably more dangerous products whose sellers have both deeper pockets and connections within government.

This isn’t the fault of government or corporations alone. It’s the nexus between a high degree of centralized regulatory power and the ability of big money to influence it. It’s systemic, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Perhaps that’s the most dangerous thing to which we’re exposing our youth.

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Max Gulker

Max Gulker is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2015. His research often focuses on free markets and technology, including blockchain and cryptocurrencies, the sharing economy, and internet commerce. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, especially on blockchain technology. Max’s research and writing also touch on other economic topics, including governance, competition, and small businesses.
 
Max holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxgAIER.