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Banning Free E-Cig Samples Reveals Bias

— October 16, 2017

Last week, the FDA clarified its rule banning free e-cig samples. With this abstinence-minded policy, we’re “saving the children” but abandoning adults.

Last Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance that expanded its ban on free samples of tobacco products to include vaping products and e-cigarettes. The ban, issued in March 2010, originally covered only traditional cigarettes and associated tobacco products, such as tobacco sold for the purposes of “rolling your own.” However, regulating free e-cig samples is a natural extension of the agency’s power to control and regulate tobacco products.

The stated purpose behind banning free e-cig samples is, as always, “protecting the children.” (Between “protecting the children” and “preventing terrorism,” is there anything we can’t find a reason to outlaw or open to surveillance?) The FDA asserts that the free samples were being handed out to children at music festivals and other events. When e-cig liquid is made with fruity, candylike flavors such as Gummy Bear, Cherry Crush and Bubble Gum, it’s easy to see why children might find the products enticing.

There are also good reasons to want to prevent children from taking up the e-cig habit. In a recent Canadian study, public health researchers found that among students in grades 7-12, students who vape are likelier to smoke as adults. Of more than 25,000 students in the sample, about 10% had ever tried e-cigarettes while 2% said they’d used one in the last 30 days. Those 10% were twice as likely as the others to report wanting to try regular cigarettes in the future, even after researchers controlled for other factors such as living in areas with a higher population of smokers.

However, among adults, vaping can be a less unhealthy alternative to traditional cigarette smoking. E-cigarette liquid contains nicotine, but fewer of the other harmful substances present in cigarette smoke. Ingesting nicotine may not be the healthiest activity ever, but inhaling tar is far worse. A landmark study by researchers from a number of institutions found that those who exclusively use e-cigs had far fewer toxic substances in their breath, saliva, and urine samples than did traditional smokers or those who use both. Banning free e-cig samples reduces the chance that smokers will give vaping a try and choose to switch their vice to something which, if not completely virtuous, is at least less bad. It’s not unheard-of for less-risky solutions to be adopted in lieu of more dangerous activities; after all, that’s why people wear seat belts and use condoms (although probably not at the same time).

E-cigarette user; image by, CC BY 2.0, no changes made.
E-cigarette user; image by, CC BY 2.0, no changes made.

Vaping is also a useful tool in smoking cessation. Kicking any addiction is hard work, and vaping is certainly not a cure. That said, gradually reducing a dependence on traditional cigarettes through vaping is a valid way to quit, and it’s here, again, that banning free e-cig samples undercuts a socially worthwhile goal.

It’s understandable that the rise in e-cig use could trigger a desire to squelch that trend in the name of public health. It’s also reasonable to ban sweet flavors of e-liquid that appeal to children, or the venues and recipients of sample handouts. In a perfect world, laws and regulations would take individuals and societal context into account and yield results that benefit everybody. Unfortunately, our society long ago passed the size where such options were realistic. Blanket regulations and one-size-fits-all laws are always going to be unfair to somebody, somewhere. The way we govern reveals which interests and groups we value more than others. In this case, the abstinence-based mindset of banning free e-cig samples shows that our culture prioritizes (angelic?) children who might potentially take up the habit, rather than helping a great many adult smokers (sinners?) who might want to stop harming themselves and others (including, ironically, their own kids).

One must, after all, have a sense of priorities.


FDA: Ban on free tobacco samples includes e-cigs
Long-term vaping ‘far safer than smoking’ says ‘landmark’ study
Young Canadians who vape are twice as likely to want to try cigarettes, researchers say
Promote Health by Not Defending the E-Cigarette Ban

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