New York, Old Attitudes
Indoor vaping ban is a product of growing anti-vaping sentiment in US media
On Monday the 23rd of October, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill making New York the 11th state to enforce a ban on vaping in spaces where smoking is prohibited, joining the likes of California, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Jersey.
70% of New York State was already subject to a ban on indoor public vaping following the amended 2013 Smoke Free Air Act put in place by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Upon signing the bill, Governor Cuomo claimed that the measure “closes another dangerous loophole in the law, creating a stronger, healthier New York for all.”
Studies into the effects of second-hand vaping are few and far between, but last year the Royal College of Physicians published a study which found that the risks associated with passive vaping were negligible.
The ban is symptomatic of a growing hostility from the country’s media and politicians, largely fuelled by conflicting safety information and an understandable distrust of the tobacco industry.
Back in 2009, President Obama’s Food and Drug Administration formally deemed e-cigarettes and e-liquid to be ‘tobacco products’ subject to FDA regulation. The Tobacco Control Act introduced strict regulations that made it harder and more time-consuming for new products to be released onto the market.
At the time, President Obama claimed that this was victory against aggressive tobacco lobbyists, when in fact, Philip Morris, owner of the Marlboro brand, had worked on the bill, and would likely profit from freezing out the competition.
In August this year, the Trump administration signalled a softening approach to e-cigarettes.
Commissioner Scott Gottlieb granted vape businesses four more years to submit Premarket Tobacco Applications (PMTAs) to allow for their products to be marketed in the United States. Nonetheless, the fact that they are considered ‘new tobacco products’ rather than tobacco-free nicotine-delivery devices does little for the image of vaping.
Meanwhile, nationwide hysteria around a supposed underage vaping epidemic has reached fever pitch.
One trend that has repeatedly made the headlines is ‘Juuling’, where teenagers vape at school using discrete Juul devices that resemble USB drives.
A Newton high school email published in the Boston Globe in November sought to educate parents on the issue, beginning by describing how vaping devices function before moving on to suggest that e-cigarettes “are the latest ‘gateway’ to harder drug use,” despite there being scant evidence to back up the claim.
Contrary to the scare stories, a study by Harm Reduction Journal found that the reported rise in teen vaping in the country was misleading and that figures were more likely representative of experimentation among people who currently or previously smoked rather than non-smokers trying e-cigarettes and becoming committed vapers.
Given the fact that sales of so-called tobacco products are restricted to those at least 18 years of age, vaping proponents have argued that sufficient regulation is already in place and should be enforced at point-of-sale and policed by parents and schools.
However, salacious newspaper headlines continue to peddle the myth that the vaping industry is actively targeting teenagers with attractive flavours like cookies and bubble gum, ignoring the fact that adults who’ve grown out of buying sweets and cookies still enjoy the flavours associated with them.
In the context of Public Health England actively promoting e-cigarettes as a tool to quit smoking, the UK vape industry and wider media have derided American legislators for downplaying the considerable positives of switching from smoking to vaping.
Unfortunately for the millions of smokers in the US who could benefit from vaping, the tobacco industry’s historic claims of embracing harm-reduction have tainted the image of genuinely less-harmful, tobacco-free alternatives.
All this adds to a significant misperception of the relative harm of e-cigarettes. A 2015 study showed that over a third of adult smokers perceived e-cigarettes to be as harmful or more harmful than combustible cigarettes, compared to just 12 percent three years earlier. Given the current media landscape, this figure seems likely to continue to rise.
Dr. Lynn Kozlowski of the School of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Buffalo addressed this issue following the publication of a paper in the journal Addictive Behaviours.
“Deception or evasion about major differences in product risks is not supported by public health ethics, health communication or consumer practices. Public health agencies have an obligation to correct the current dramatic level of consumer misinformation on relative risks that they have fostered.”
Whether public health agencies live up to that obligation remains to be seen. But with another high-profile ban conflating e-cigarette vapour with second-hand tobacco smoke, it seems likely that more restrictive policies will follow.