Bold move by San Francisco. It’s time to have this discussion in Seattle. Data shows a rise in use and health issues related to e-cigarettes, esp. by young people. WA led the way battling Big Tobacco & cutting smoking. We cannot afford to go backwards. https://t.co/kFAyjTHuDu
— Mayor Jenny Durkan (@MayorJenny) June 26, 2019
Okay, Durkan, let's have that discussion.
I smoked cigarettes for 15 years. During that time I tried the gum, the lozenges, and the patch. None of those smoking cessation options worked for me.
This year I switched to the vape pen, and I haven't smoked a single square since.
I take that back. I had a few cigarettes on a bar patio a couple weeks ago. To my surprise, however, I didn't really care for them.
Though sucking on the end of a long thumb drive makes me look like a tool, it replaces all the addictions I developed from smoking cigarettes. It satisfies my oral fixation. It satisfies my hand-to-mouth addiction. It satisfies my need-to-just-take-deep-breaths-for-five-minutes addiction. And it satisfies the ritualistic-ending-of-a-meal addiction.
With the vape I can also lower my nicotine concentration over time, and I look forward to fully kicking the habit of regularly smoking or vaping anything at my own pace.
But even after a month of not smoking cigarettes, I don't feel much in the way of pride. Mostly I feel a lot of frustration with myself for not switching sooner. The process was much easier and much cheaper than I thought it was going to be.
And I'm not alone in thinking so. It turns out that vaping is a pretty good way to quit the smokes. A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that e-cigs had an 18% success rate, which was "more effective for smoking cessation than nicotine-replacement therapy [patches or gum], when both products were accompanied by behavioral support."
But Am I Going to Die from Vaping?
I looked into this question when writing about the ill-conceived, Big Tobacco-friendly, and, of course, regressive vape tax the Washington Legislature passed minutes before the end of the last legislative session.
The official word from a spokesperson at the Washington State Department of Health at that time was that "vapor products are probably safer for adults who smoke." The spokesperson was quick to add that "there is not enough evidence" to determine if vapes are good for quitting, nor has there been enough time to "assess long-term health effects" of vaping.
The refrain you hear from vape enthusiasts, however, is: "It's not the nicotine in cigarettes that kills you, it's the hundreds of chemicals in the smoke." A good, long feature in the Verge investigating that claim shows that the "jury is still out" on the relationship between nicotine and heart health, though that's largely because there hasn't been much study on whether nicotine alone triggers heart attacks. Nicotine "may also be risky to use while pregnant." But, unless you're a kid with a developing brain, nicotine by itself doesn't seem so bad for adults.
Smoking cigarettes, however, is very bad for adults. Smoking kills 500,000 people every year. And, as the New York Times reports, "e-cigarettes contain a fraction of the toxins that make conventional cigarettes the leading cause of preventable death in the United States."
But What About the Children??
As Washington State House Rep. Gerry Pollet and many concerned parents will tell you, teen vaping is on the rise. The 2018 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey found that e-cigarette use "increased dramatically" among high school students between 2016 and 2018. And the 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which is considered the most comprehensive review of the science on vaping to date, found "substantial evidence" that e-cigs can be a gateway to real cigarettes for teens.
You want to stop kids from vaping? Here are a few ideas.
• Treat vapes like weed. Only allow vape sales in brick-and-mortar shops with a security guard out front checking IDs. Though current vape store owners say the unfair, Big Tobacco-friendly vape tax threatens the existence of those stores, a city ordinance restricting sales in this way might save whichever shops remain. And while you're at it, why not treat cigarettes the same way? Get them out of the convenience stores and into some more heavily regulated facilities, and levy big fines against store owners who break the rules.
• Ban flavors. I can see how kids might be drawn to vapes that taste like fruity pebbles or root beer floats. Fine! Ban fruity flavors and make them all taste like Fine Virginia Tobacco and mint.
• Fund a public messaging campaign. Show kids how stupid they look when smoking e-juice. Embarrass them. Make it seem uncool. Good luck.
Banning Vapes Is Bad Policy
One thing that's certain: banning vapes will not stop kids from vaping. It'll shut down small businesses, sure, but it won't stop kids from vaping.
Over the phone last month, Kim Thompson, owner of The Vaporium and president of the Pink Lung Brigade, told me that vaping culture started with a bunch of Reddit users sitting around in their garages and building lightsaber-shaped gadgets while mixing their own vape juice using ingredients they found in the baking aisle of their grocery store.
If the kids are already hooked on the cherry flavored vape juice, then they're going to buy it on the internet or drive out to the nearest Indian reservation to get it. If you prevent them from buying vape juice on the internet, then they're going to make it at home. If they start mixing their own vape juice at home, then you'll have to deal with a bunch of 14-year-olds vaping poorly proportioned and under-steeped products.
And, of course, if all of that sounds like too much trouble for them, then they'll just pick up a pack of Camels and get their nic-fix the old fashioned way.
Don't ban my smoking cessation device. It's working for me and for many others, offering us a path toward ending our nicotine addiction entirely.
P.S. If you really want to take your municipal policy cues from San Francisco, please consider taxing large corporations to pay for housing, shelter, and services for homeless people. They're dying in the streets on your watch. Thank you.