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Minors, Money, and Misinformation

Once again, health advocacy groups are taking a stance against a state ban on sale of e-cigarettes to minors, putting forward justifications which seem inscrutable, not to say downright specious.

An article in the Columbus Ohio Dispatch claims that the bill was designed by Big Tobacco giant Lorillard as an attempt to avoid taxation of e-cigs in the future by detaching the product from cigarettes. The Ohio State Medical Association is joining with the American Cancer Society of Ohio and the Lung Association, not in outright opposition to the bill this time, but in urging caution.

Taxing e-cigs at the same rate as lethal cigarettes would remove one of the important motivations for using them in smoking cessation. So it would kill people. (E-cigs are acknowledged by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to work as well as the foremost pre-existing smoking cessation device, and the prestigious medical journal The Lancet admits that they work ever-so slightly better.) Taxing them at the same rate as cigarettes would hurt Lorillard only a little. It would hurt small e-cig companies, which do not sell cigarettes, a lot. Mostly it would hurt the 7.3% of smokers who could quit with them (see The Lancet) and would have more motivation to do so if they were given some price relief.

It would seem that creative legislators should be able to devise a way to separate the sale-to-minors issue from the taxation issue.

All responsible voices in the e-cig industry have called for a ban on sale to minors, including the many small time vape shops and (non-cigarette-producing) e-cig manufacturers, who police themselves in this matter even where it is not yet required by law. Big Tobacco muscled its way into the industry less than a year ago (with one exception), and it is egregiously unjust to assume it speaks for the entire industry. Yet this assumption is routinely made by anti-vaping activists.

A group of vape shops in Nebraska has taken the bull by the horns and issued their own call for a ban on sale to minors, according to the Fremont, Nebraska Tribune. This move could prove to be an ingenious one, although forces in the press may try hard to ignore it, not wanting it known that the e-cig industry itself takes a responsible stance, nor that Big Tobacco does not speak for the industry.

The proprietor of the "Plumes" e-cig shop in Omaha, Tim Bowen, says that his shop has a self-imposed policy prohibiting sale to minors, but every week catches about 4 teenagers making the attempt. The ban "is very, very necessary," says Bowen.

The Tribune repeats the familiar litany that vaping among teens leads to teenage smoking, saying that "recent studies suggest kids are now getting a first taste of nicotine through e-cigarettes and then moving on to regular tobacco products." In fact, recent studies show the exact opposite. The claim is made apparently on the basis of the CDC report that e-cig use is up among teens, since that study is mentioned a few paragraphs later. The CDC study, however, gives no evidence that e-cig use leads to smoking, only that it has increased. (The study states that it leads to smoking, but produces no evidence, only conjecture presented as fact.) And the University of Michigan later found that smoking among teenagers dropped dramatically in this very period, as their e-cig use was rising dramatically, a finding that could not possibly support the "gateway hypothesis". The opposite, in fact.

And Professor Theodore Wagener of Oklahoma State University found one teenager in nineteen-hundred who went on to smoking after beginning with e-cigarettes.

Station KRQE in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reports that Governor Susana Martinez has introduced a bill banning e-cig sales to minors in that state, but no one seems to think she was put up to it by Lorillard in an attempt to avoid future taxation on e-cigs. The same article also repeats the story about a rise in child nicotine poisoning in the state, failing to mention that the incidents in question all resulted from careless parental supervision of their vaping supplies. The kids got into the liquids and drank them, but the story makes it sound as though the e-cig industry is poisoning children.

It is clear that powerful voices wish ill to the e-cigarette industry, which may be appropriate in the case of Big Tobacco. But these voices make incorrect generalizations and assumptions that harm users on the ground, and they are willing to bend the facts to carry their points.