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Is Bad Press Driving Vapers Back To Cigarettes?

In June 2019, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban e-cigarettes until their health effects become clearer.

From late January, famous vaping shops and cafes like Gone With the Smoke and Vapor Den became a distant whiff of bubblegum-flavoured vapour; they were forced to close. While vaping has been banned in SF, the sale of tobacco cigarettes will continue. “San Francisco has never been afraid to lead. That will always be the case when the health of our children is on the line,” said San Francisco’s city attorney Dennis Herrera in a statement shortly after the ban was passed.

This ban and the subsequent closing of vaping establishments follows earlier action by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the national regulator, which issued proposed guidelines giving companies until 2021 to have their e-cigarette products evaluated officially.

Although there were other places in the world where e-cigarettes were outlawed prior to San Francisco, the fact that such action was taken in the United States—the “land of the free”—marked a significant event in the world of vaping.

Teenage Vapers

Behind the ban on e-cigarettes in San Francisco is something that has been touted as an “epidemic”—teenage vaping. More than one in four American teens have admitted to trying vaping, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Furthermore, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 12% of 16- and 17-year-old Americans were medically addicted to nicotine, causing the study's authors to begin to raise the alarm and make announcements regarding the effect that nicotine has on a developing adolescent’s brain. Recently, the FDA described the use of e-cigarettes among teens as “a crisis among America’s youth”.

This is not the only bad press that vaping, and the wider vape community, has faced. In fact, since its inception in the mid-2000s and its popularisation throughout the 2010s, vaping has had an uphill struggle and has had to fight off more than its fair share of negative coverage and smear campaigns.

Most of the bad press surrounding vaping comes from one key area: the impact on our health. With a lack of long-term data on vaping's health implications due to the relatively short period of time that vaping has been around, inconsistencies in how governments approach vaping have risen around the world. For example, officials in the US are beginning to crack down on vaping while at the same time, the UK is promoting e-cigarettes as a viable alternative to smoking and as a way to quit.

The Damaging Impact of Bad Press

Where the truth lies and whether or not vaping is “safe” and/or “healthier” is a major argument that is worthy of consideration, but this is a topic for another time as what we are examining in this article today is the impact that all this bad press is having, and the impression it is leaving on smokers and former smokers.

A new report from Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, indicates that recent data shows that a majority of smokers over the age of 50 are deciding to return to smoking cigarettes after having switched to e-cigarettes and vapes. Although some of this can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic—the pandemic has made it more difficult, especially for the older generations, to buy vaping supplies—we cannot ignore the potentially obvious underlying cause: bad press and regulatory crackdowns.

According to Billy Gifford, the CEO of Altria, who spoke in a virtual meeting with investors, older consumers of vaping products are primarily purchasing discounted cigarettes after the “sustained vilification” of vaping products and the FDA’s push towards strictly regulating them. One of the more recent moves by the U.S. FDA has been the requirement for vape product vendors to apply for product approval under the premarket tobacco regulations.

“Over the last several months, we’ve observed an increase in the number of age 50 and older smokers in the cigarette category,” Gifford said during his virtual meeting. “We believe these smokers had previously switched to e-vapour products, but recently returned to cigarettes due to negative publicity and regulatory and legislative developments in the e-vapour category.”

Shaking Up the Vaping Industry

The FDA’s enforcement actions against e-cigarette manufacturers and vaping product vendors have shaken up the U.S. vaping industry. However, it is not only U.S. firms that have and will suffer. The impact of actions by U.S. regulators and official bodies are often felt worldwide.

Despite the actions of the FDA and others, however, vaping is still considered a safer alternative to cigarettes by public health organizations across the world. In the UK, Public Health England was the world’s first health body to endorse regulated e-cigarettes when it said that the scientific evidence that they've reviewed in their government-mandated e-cigarette evidence review suggests that they are 95% safer than cigarettes. In fact, the FDA itself, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has also said that vaping products are “theoretically” safer than cigarettes.

The fact that people seem to be making the switch from e-cigarettes back to smoking may be indicative of serious misinformation and misperceptions about the huge risk gap between smoking and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) like e-cigarettes. Only time will tell whether other countries like Australia will go along similar lines to the US or will instead take what appears to be a more science-based approach like the UK. As for the issue of misinformation, Greek cardiologist Konstantinos Farsalinos, discussing Altria’s findings, said, “Drastic measures are needed so that smokers will receive reasonable, unbiased, and evidence-based messages [to] make informed decisions”.

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