FDA Still Hooked on Meddling in Nicotine Markets

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Back in April, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to reduce nicotine levels in cigarettes to help current smokers quit and prevent future generations from starting. In an op-ed I wrote for Inside Sources, I argued such efforts are unlikely to help and will likely cause considerable harm.

At the time, lawmakers also pressured the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes, worried they were steering younger generations into nicotine addiction. In the same op-ed, I warned that regulating e-cigarettes, like regular cigarettes, “will also lead to serious harm guided by good intentions.”

Unfortunately, more “good intentions” have followed.

In early September, the FDA began an anti-vaping campaign to deter teens from vaping and issued information requests to e-cigarette companies to determine how popular these products were among younger demographics. Two weeks later, the agency gave five e-cigarette producers 60 days to present it, “with robust plans on how they’ll [the producers] convincingly address the widespread use of their products by minors.”

If producers are unable to “convince” the FDA, more stringent regulations will follow. A short list of potential future actions includes banning certain flavored e-cigarette juices, prohibiting online sales, and “boots on the ground” inspections for retailers. Although there is still time for e-cigarette producers to present “robust plans,” the FDA is currently “not impressed.”

Many believe these heavy-handed actions are necessary to prevent younger users from becoming lifelong vapers. Chief among them is FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who considers the current state of teen vaping to be of “epidemic proportion” with the potential to cause “a whole generation of young people become addicted to nicotine.”

These concerns largely stem from recently released survey data indicating an increase in e-cigarette use for high-school aged users. One statistics, as highlighted in the Wall Street Journal, finds vaping rates for high-school aged users increased 75 percent from 2017 to 2018.

While this statistic is alarming, it is important to put it in proper context.

The survey used to calculate this figure was conducted during the spring of 2018, making comparisons to rates calculated over all of 2017 premature. The survey also only asks participants whether they “used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.” Without quantifying how frequently the participants used e-cigarettes over the past 30 days, any allusions to addiction are highly speculative.

Further, even if there is a 75 percent increase in vaping rates for high schoolers, overall trends dating back to 2011 indicate widespread decreases in both smoking and vaping and smoking rates for high-school aged users. Recent increases in vaping rates would, at best, be a deviation from a much longer and consistent downward trend. Suggesting recent increases constitute an “epidemic” is suspect.

But if actions need to be taken, we should be hesitant to let the FDA take them.

History demonstrates that regulation consistently fails to deter vices. Limiting access to fast food restaurants and taxing sodas have all failed to combat obesity (which is also considered an epidemic). Taxing cigarettes does little to deter smoking. The War on Drugs has shown very limited success in reducing access to illicit substances.

In many cases, regulation promotes riskier actions working to exacerbate the very problems it attempts to solve. Obesity rates have increased since the government became involved. Efforts to deter opioid addiction have driven patients to seek illicit alternatives (including heroin). It is difficult to imagine why regulating e-cigarettes would not lend a telling history of regulatory failure to repeat itself.

E-cigarettes are a comparatively new product (first entering the U.S. market in 2006) and much more research to determine how harmful or addictive they are is needed. Unfortunately escalating concerns for younger generation’s health make a “wait and see” approach to regulation unpopular. However, by putting recent statistics into perspective and considering the extensive failures of regulation to deter vice, it is likely that regulation puts younger generations in greater danger than vaping.

Incidentally, I also believe the FDA’s addiction to regulation is more severe than any smoker’s addiction is to nicotine.