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FDA vs CDC on Vaping as Harm Reduction

FDA vs CDC on Vaping as Harm Reduction


When advocates for reduced-harm tobacco alternatives lobby legislators, they often present both personal testimonials and statements backed by research done on the benefits that can come from harm reduction strategies such as vaping. Unfortunately, when governments go to pass laws, they often put more weight into research conducted by official bodies, or even their own personal prejudices. The waters are only muddied further when different government agencies provide conflicting pictures of the truth on the ground.


After looking at survey data collected between 2011 and 2016 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one finds that cigarette smoking among teenagers had fallen by half, cigar smoking fell by a third, and smokeless tobacco use fell by a quarter. Yet despite these drops in cigarette, cigar, and smokeless tobacco use, the Food and Drug Administration claimed that there were "no significant declines in overall high school tobacco use" during the survey time frame. Their logic: the rise of e-cigarettes, also defined as a "tobacco product," replaced actual tobacco consumption. It's worth noting here that even the use of e-cigarettes, after climbing for several years, is now declining amongst the adolescent population as tighter age-restriction laws take effect across the country.


This conflict primarily comes from the FDA considering vapor products, regardless of whether they contain nicotine or whether that nicotine was derived from tobacco, to be equivalent to combustible tobacco. Why does the FDA consider e-cigs a tobacco product? The main reason is regulation - a 2007 law hands over the authority to control tobacco products to the agency and includes vapor products in the loosely-defined description of what is and isn't tobacco (legally, an 18650 battery cell, even if it's used to power your laptop, or a glass tube that holds e-liquid in your clearomizer, is considered 'tobacco' by the FDA). This is all because e-liquid *can* contain nicotine derived from tobacco.


This misrepresentation can be potentially dangerous for vape users who have used vaping as a means of smoking cessation - lumping e-cigs and traditional cigarettes together can send a message that they may as well return to (or continue) smoking, because both products are equally harmful. While e-cigarettes are not a no-harm alternative, every legitimate piece of research on vaping finds that the potential risks are far lower than those associated with smoking. When this fact is left out, it can cause dangerous confusion.


While the FDA and CDC had previously agreed that the reductions to traditional cigarette use, smokeless tobacco use, pipe use, and cigar smoking weren't of significance due to the increase in vape use among teens, the CDC has begun to change their tone. On their basic e-cig information page, the CDC notes the potential benefits that a smoker could incur if they switched to vaping as a reduced-harm alternative. The wording, however, emphasizes that in order to obtain the health benefits of quitting smoking, a vaper has to actually quit smoking - dual-users who continue to smoke and supplement their smoking with vaping are still heavily impacted by the cigarettes they continue to smoke.


The CDC admitting that vapor products can be a powerful tool in the ultimate goal of reducing the public health crisis created by tobacco is a step in the right direction. We can only hope that, going forward, the mounting evidence of this will further influence lawmakers and others with the power to stamp out tobacco once and for all.