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Despite the Alarming Studies, E-Cigarettes Are a Win for Public Health

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Despite the Alarming Studies, E-Cigarettes Are a Win for Public Health
Image Credit: AP

There has been all sorts of bad news about e-cigarettes this month.

The electronic smoking alternatives — at least according to recent headlines —  may cause cancer, lead teenagers into a lifetime of nicotine addiction and don't help smokers quit. Predictably, politicians are again demanding that something be done to protect the public from the proliferation of electronic cigarettes.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) announced on Monday that they want to restrict e-cigarette marketing and limit the flavors of nicotine e-liquid available to consumers. According to Durbin, the regulations are meant to discourage e-cigarette use among children because it is  “ … a candy-flavored addiction, which is dangerous to our young people … and sadly poses serious public health threats.”

E-cigarette critics have been making this assertion for nearly a decade. They were wrong then because we had no evidence one way or the other, and they're wrong now because the evidence we've gathered contradicts their claims. Put simply, Durbin and Waxman with the help of the media are misleading the public about e-cigarettes, who's using them and how safe they are.  

E-cigarette use has exploded in recent years. As a result, so has the research investigating how the smoking alternatives affect human health. Going back to 2011, we've had clinical evidence that smokers who switch to e-cigarettes are able to quit tobacco entirely, and do so with few or no side effects, and that's very likely because the chemicals in e-cigarettes are not dangerous.

Today it's the same story. A study published this month by researchers in England found that smoking cessation in the country has increased significantly right along with the growth of e-cigarette use. The result doesn't necessarily prove that e-cigarettes caused the decline in smoking, but as the study's authors concluded, the "Evidence conflicts with the view that electronic cigarettes are undermining tobacco control … and they may be contributing to a reduction in smoking prevalence through increased success at quitting smoking."

Other studies from Europe have yielded even more impressive results, with one French survey (English summary available here) finding that e-cigarettes may have helped 1% of the France's population quit smoking.  

These studies are important because they demonstrate the effectiveness of e-cigarettes. But they're even more important because they provide solid evidence that smokers — people already addicted to nicotine — are using the devices to quit; children are not using e-cigarettes to develop a nicotine addiction. You may see contrary stories in the news, but the suggestion that kids are taking up e-cigarettes is based on nothing more than badly misinterpreted CDC statistics, released in 2013. Moreover, a study published just a week after the CDC data found that e-cigarette use among teenagers is very low, and the teens who had tried e-cigarettes were already smokers. 

Durbin, Waxman and other critics will undoubtedly continue to cry foul about advertising aimed at children, but the growing body of evidence about e-cigarette use renders their complaints moot. If e-cigarette manufacturers are marketing their products to kids, they sure suck at it, as the numbers above illustrate. But that's assuming the manufacturers are targeting children, and several major e-cigarette brands have successfully argued in court that they are not. In response to these new proposed rules, six manufacturers also said they would favor a ban on selling e-cigarettes to minors.

That brings us to an important point: Nobody involved in this debate is against sensible regulations. It's perfectly reasonable to put an age restriction on the sale of e-cigarettes, but misrepresenting the evidence and demonizing a life-saving product in the process is not only unnecessary but shameful. As cigarette consumption both around the world and in the United States continues to drop, we should acknowledge that the growing popularity of e-cigarettes is a massive win for public health. 

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