Earlier this month, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Shamann Walton announced that they are introducing an ordinance to the Board of Supervisors that would ban all electronic cigarettes until they are officially reviewed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since there is not a single e-cigarette on the market that has undergone such an approval process, the ordinance does indeed ban the sale of all electronic cigarettes in the city of San Francisco.
The reasoning behind the proposal is as follows: “Today we are taking action to protect our kids. By law, before a new tobacco product goes to market, the Food and Drug Administration is supposed to conduct a review to evaluate its impact on public health. Inexplicably, the FDA has failed to do its job when it comes to e-cigarettes. Until the FDA does so, San Francisco has to step up. These products should not be on our shelves until the FDA has reviewed the threat they pose to public health.”
This has to be one of the most insane public health proposals I have ever seen. This legislation basically says: “We care so much about the health of our kids that we can’t allow e-cigarettes to remain on the market until they have a complete safety review. However, we are perfectly happy allowing cigarettes—which have had extensive safety reviews and been found to be killing hundreds of thousands of Americans each year—to remain on the market. Let us be honest. We care enough about our kids to take the politically expedient step of making it look like we are truly protecting their health by banning e-cigarettes, but we don’t care about our kids so much that we want to actually protect them by removing from the market a product that we know is going to kill half of those kids who become addicted to it.”
This is truly a political maneuver under the guise of a desire to protect children’s health. Let’s be clear. If the Board of Supervisors were sincerely committed to protecting kids, they would immediately remove cigarettes—the most deadly consumer product—from the market. Cigarettes are addicting and eventually killing more than 400,000 Americans each year. Yet you mean to tell me that in light of that, the Board of Supervisors wants to conduct a safety review for the fake cigarettes?
And what’s the point of such a safety review? We already have a safety review of cigarettes and know that they are deadly. And in light of that, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors nevertheless feels perfectly comfortable allowing those products to be sold. Do they think that electronic cigarettes are actually more hazardous than cigarettes? Of course not. They know full well that e-cigarettes are far safer than the real ones.
Clearly, the reason why they want to ban the fake cigarettes but not the real ones is because they don’t have the political courage to take the step that would most substantially protect the public’s health. This is an easy opportunity to make it look like they are totally committed to protecting kids when in fact, they are apparently perfectly content to allow the most dangerous consumer product in history to be sold on retail shelves in gas stations, convenience stores, and other places that are easily accessible to kids throughout the city.
This is an easy political victory because they know the vaping industry is not organized or centralized enough to fight it successfully. But if they are justified in banning e-cigarettes, then it is certainly imperative upon them – and actually much more justified – to ban real cigarettes. However, the tobacco industry is organized, centralized, and powerful.
The rest of the story is that what is really going on here is that the proponents of this ordinance simply do not have the political courage to take the real action that would protect the public’s health: banning cigarettes. Removing e-cigarettes from the shelves is an easy political victory that may make it seem like they desire to protect kids, but the truth is that they are apparently perfectly content with allowing deadly cigarettes to be sold to the kids who they purport to be protecting.
Ultimately, this is politics, not public health.
Dr. Michael Siegel is a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.