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Guest opinion: Big Tobacco bets big on vaping

Supporters of e-cigarettes and “vaping” are trying to block the FDA’s decision to regulate “vapor” products. They’ve used an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations bill, the Cole-Bishop Amendment, as an end run around the FDA’s efforts to regulate vaping products.

We already know that tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. We have no solid proof that e-cigs are a safe alternative to conventional tobacco. The FDA seeks to make manufacturers prove the safety of their products before sale.

In the absence of regulation, use of e-cigs and other electronic nicotine delivery devices, known as ENDS, exploded. The trend is particularly alarming among youth.

Words tend to shape how we view issues. “Vapor” implies a harmless gas formed from water. But ENDS emit an aerosol, not a vapor. That aerosol can contain nicotine, formaldehyde, benzene, nitrosamines, glycol or glycerin, and ultrafine particulate matter including tin from the cartridge. The exhaled aerosol is similar to secondhand smoke.

Nicotine, which is found in tobacco products is a highly addictive drug. In a single year, the rate of middle school students using electronic smoking devices tripled, according to data released in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A different study indicates youth are attracted to ENDS out of curiosity and by the multiple flavors that entice young consumers. Teens were not using the devices to quit cigarettes. Instead, ENDS may be a gateway to smoking and nicotine addiction. In fact, a newly published article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 10th graders who frequently vaped were more likely to use conventional tobacco products within a year than their peers.

According to the 2015 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more than half of high school students had already tried electronic vapor products. It’s taken generations to successfully lower tobacco use rates and “de-normalize” smoking and tobacco use. It would be unconscionable for us to allow younger generations to get hooked on nicotine through the fast growing and evolving electronic delivery systems for tobacco and nicotine.

No rigorous studies have demonstrated the value of electronic cigarettes helping tobacco users to quit. While some adults have used ENDS to quit smoking, studies indicate a far larger majority are “dual users,” those who also use conventional tobacco products. The FDA has already approved several safe and effective medications to help smokers quit. Call the Montana Tobacco Quit Line at 1-800-Quit-Now for help in quitting.

Slick ads for ENDS certainly don’t appear to market vape products as a way to quit tobacco. Corporate tobacco has placed huge bets on the future of vaping. E-cigarette advertising grew to $115.3 million in 2014, up from $5.6 million in 2010. In Montana, the tobacco industry spends $30 million a year on advertising.

The annual health care costs in Montana directly related to tobacco use amount to $440 million. Imagine the health benefits to our state if those tobacco marketing dollars and health care costs were spent on improving Montanans’ overall health.

Working in public health, my job is to improve the life, health, and safety of our community using evidence-based policies and practices. For tobacco, that means promoting regulations to limit access to tobacco products, decreasing usage through prevention and cessation efforts, and providing education about the dangers of tobacco. The FDA is moving in the right direction by putting in place stiff regulatory barriers to prove that ENDS don’t cause public harm.

Claire R. Oakley, PhD. MHA, is director of population health at RiverStone Health in Billings.

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