Last week, Allegheny County Council voted to ban the use of e-cigarettes in public places such as restaurants, stadiums and schools. The ban is unfortunate and ill-advised. The rule treats vaping just like smoking and sends the message that vaping is just as dangerous as smoking. This is just not true and could discourage smokers from switching to e-cigarettes, which carry much less risk than smoking.
While nicotine can be addictive, particularly in cigarettes, it is the smoke — the product of burning — that makes conventional cigarettes deadly. As reported in the 2014 Surgeon General’s Report: “The burden of death and disease from tobacco use in the United States is overwhelmingly caused by cigarettes and other combusted tobacco products.”
Despite our successes in helping smokers to quit and preventing youth initiation, there are still 40 million adult smokers in this country and almost half a million smoking-related deaths every year. A smoker who doesn’t quit has a 50/50 chance of dying prematurely.
Against that backdrop, e-cigarettes represent a huge public health opportunity. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England promote switching to e-cigarettes, noting that e-cigarettes are likely at least 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes. And many e-cigarette users report that e-cigarettes have helped them quit smoking for good.
We ought to be doing everything we can to help continuing smokers move toward these much less harmful options. This ban does the opposite. By making it just as inconvenient to vape as to smoke, and by promoting the misperception that vaping is just as bad as smoking, it discourages movement in a healthier direction.
Smoking is rightly banned in public places in Pennsylvania because of the well-documented harm caused by exposure to secondhand smoke. But secondhand smoke comes largely from the lit end of a cigarette, which puts undiluted smoke into the air between puffs. In contrast, e-cigarettes activate only when the user inhales, drastically cutting down on what is emitted. And, much like what the e-cigarette user inhales, the vapor put into the environment is nothing like smoke. According to one study, the exhaled vapor is 99.9 percent water and glycerin, and less than 0.06 percent nicotine. Other compounds are barely present, and often at levels comparable to indoor air in offices.
Council members should have voted to distinguish between vapor and smoke. Basing policy on the fact that smoking is the problem — and that vaping is, for some, a solution — would have saved lives. This ban will endanger them.
Saul Shiffman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has led the Smoking Research Group since 1984. The views expressed in this commentary are his and do not necessarily reflect the view of the university. He consults to Pinney Associates, which provides consulting services on tobacco harm minimization (including nicotine replacement therapy and vapor products) to Niconovum USA, RJ Reynolds Vapor Company and RAI Services Company, all subsidiaries of Reynolds American Inc.