Vaping Is Better Than Smoking, But It’s Still Very Bad

My post yesterday about vaping among teens produced some feedback. First, here’s an email from reader JB:

I have three kids between 6th and 11th grade and I can say that vaping is a huge issue. I am old enough to remember the smoke-filled bathrooms in high school and the ubiquitousness of cigarettes everywhere. I remember riding dirt bikes out to the middle of nowhere and turning green smoking Marlboro (in the box, naturally). Hell, I remember really creative advertising for smokes. Juul makes the old penis/camel ads look ancient and boring. The kids laugh at the new ads with prominent adult voices. The flavors (are gross and) are aimed at kids. The devices are incredibly small and easy to hide.

Kids master how to vape in class or take a quick pop walking in the stairs. I have no doubt that I have had kids vape in my large lecture classes. Twenty-five rows deep means the back of the room is the wild west. With smokes, you had the issue of the smell that stuck to you. With Juul, that is not an issue. What we have seen here is how this has spread across the groups in high school. While smoking at school was mostly for a narrow demographic back when I was in school, vaping shows up across a broad swath of kids. I think Juul and similar products have altered the terrain for years to come. From a policy perspective, the ship was way out to sea before there was any response.

On the other side, a few readers have asked about the benefits of vaping. There’s obviously one huge benefit: e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco and therefore won’t give you lung cancer. That’s not to say they’re completely safe, but they’re certainly safer than smoking tobacco. The big caveat is this: they’re only safer if you give up cigarettes when you begin vaping. The evidence so far is unclear about how common this is. Some vapers stop smoking, while others just end up smoking and vaping.

Still, there’s no question that at least some number of current smokers give up cigarettes in favor of vaping, and for these people it’s a clear improvement. But the really big question is how many people do this vs. how many teens take up vaping as a brand new thing and get addicted. For them, this is a clear net loss. Nobody can provide you with exact numbers about this, but here’s a very basic chart of cigarette smoking in the US:

Smoking among both teens and adults has been on a long-term decline ever since the Surgeon General’s report in 1964. Did vaping contribute to making that decline even steeper? Among adults it doesn’t look like it, but among teens it took a 4 percent annual decline and turned it into an 11 percent annual decline since 2014.

On net, then, vaping has probably had very little effect one way or the other on adult smoking. Vaping is beneficial if it helps get you off tobacco, but it looks like that hasn’t happened much.

Among teens, however, vaping looks like it’s taken the place of tobacco to some extent. A rough look at the data suggests that about 25 percent of teens vape, and perhaps 4-5 percent of this is done as a substitute for tobacco smoking. The other 20 percent is made up of kids who did nothing before and took up vaping as a brand new thing. The majority of these kids are vaping nicotine and will almost certainly become lifelong addicts. This is why cigarette companies have shown so much interest in acquiring vaping companies, and it’s why Altria, the maker of Marlboro, is close to deal to take a 35 percent stake in Juul.

On net, then, I’d call vaping a huge net negative. It appears to have, at most, a tiny beneficial effect on adults, and among teens it attracts lots of new addicts while having only a modest effect on tobacco smoking. If vaping were harmless, that would be one thing. But anything as addictive as nicotine should be kept far, far away from children and teens.

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