California lawmakers aren’t afraid of innovation, or so they say. Members of the Legislature in Sacramento will have their commitment to innovation tested this session when an attempt to regulate e-cigarettes again comes before them.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced legislation that would extend current restrictions on traditional tobacco products to e-cigarettes. Were S.B. 140 to be signed into law, Californians would be prohibited from using e-cigarettes in public meeting places like bars and restaurants. In Leno’s own words: “Like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes deliver nicotine in a cloud of other toxic chemicals …”
In the broadest terms, Leno is accurate. E-cigarettes do deliver nicotine in a cloud of chemicals. But, to equate the toxicity of e-cigarette vapor to the toxicity of a traditional cigarette is misleading, even if not calculated. In fact, a study in the journal Inhalation Toxicity found the exposure to harmful byproducts in vapor is not just slightly smaller than in tobacco cigarettes, but orders of magnitude smaller.
In burning tobacco, traditional cigarettes create and release tar and other carcinogens not present in e-cigarettes. The persistent effort to craft a false equivalence between e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes does not shoulder the weight of reality.
California’s smoking ban is popular and the public has come to view tobacco use with disfavor. In fact, the use of traditional cigarettes is trending toward an all-time low. If Californians can be led to believe that restricting e-cigarettes is functionally the same as restricting traditional cigarettes, they will support S.B. 140 with enthusiasm — regardless of the reality.
In the larger picture, restrictions on e-cigarettes, predicated on problematic public health arguments, could actually harm public health. While the National Institutes of Health found that well-known pharmaceutical smoking cessation treatments like nicotine patches fail at above a 90 percent rate, e-cigarettes appear to be a viable tool for mitigating the effects of traditional cigarettes. Evidence suggests that vapor products can actually act as tobacco cessation mechanisms.
Just as importantly, a large study conducted by the government of Great Britain discovered that existing smokers, not those who have never used tobacco products before, predominantly use e-cigarettes. There is little to the claim that e-cigarettes drive people to smoke, and there is even less to the claim that restricting e-cigarettes will decrease the overall number of smokers.
In the end, though their educational efforts have been loudly and consistently maligned, the e-cigarette industry has innovated a potentially useful product. While not as popular as Silicon Valley firms, they are innovators nonetheless. They have developed a far less dangerous and potentially beneficial tool that allows adults to exercise their personal freedom with a de minimis public health impact.
Whether or not S.B. 140 passes, arguments to stifle innovation through false characterizations never are a healthy thing. Clouds of toxic rhetoric can be bad both for public health and private innovation.
Ian Adams is the western region director of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C. He is based in Sacramento.