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OPINION | The stakes of the vape debate

A CAMPAIGN against vaping products is moving at land speed records, with the Trump administration announcing  it will pull flavored e-cigarettes from the market. This is becoming a political pile on, and regulators risk foreclosing one of the best opportunities in public health, which is to reduce cigarette smoking.

President Trump on Wednesday last week popped off about “a problem in our country,” which is the new trend of vaping. “There have been deaths and there have been a lot of other problems.” The first lady recently tweeted that she’s “deeply concerned” about e-cigarette use among youth, and Health and Human Services says it is stepping in to clear the market of flavored options.

Vaping devices include an array of products from pens to tanks. But most associate vaping with the pod systems like the one from Juul Labs that delivers nicotine in a pocket-size device. The point is to offer the buzz of a cigarette without the combustion of tobacco that releases carcinogens and makes smoking so dangerous. Nicotine is addictive and not without risks, but agencies like Public Health England have said such e-cigs are 95 percent safer than smokes.

Yet readers may have seen the stories about strange illnesses and deaths related to vaping. The details are still emerging, though the Food and Drug Administration has said many of the tested samples contain THC, a pyschoactive element of marijuana, and Vitamin E acetate. FDA has warned against buying products on the street, and many of these cases are the result of vaping black-market cannabis even as the regulatory scrutiny is on nicotine.

This is a nice summary of the bizarre state of public-health debate. Some in both parties are cheering marijuana legalization and the proliferation of cannabis products, even as the consequences aren’t well understood. Yet e-cigarettes are treated like public enemy No. 1. San Francisco recently banned e-cig sales.

Health and Human Services cites an increase in vaping by teenagers as the reason to ban flavors, which are attracting kids who may not otherwise use nicotine. Yet flavors like mango and mint also entice adults trying to quit smoking, and over time they help make cigarettes taste less palatable.

No one wants kids addicted to nicotine, and the question is how to balance these competing equities. It is hardly obvious that banning flavors will keep teens from vaping. Juul said this week that it “strongly” agrees “with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products,” and will comply with the eventual policy.

The irony is that Juul pulled its flavors other than tobacco and menthol from retail stores last year and sells flavors directly from its website that requires multiple steps for age verification. A Juul executive told Congress this summer that a result of exiting convenience stores has been other actors exploiting the vacuum by selling illegal flavor pods.

Expect more such unintended consequences. And if the flavor ban doesn’t reduce the number of teen vapers, then what? The next step looks like an even broader ban, which won’t be a net positive to public health.

The political and cultural background of this fight deserve mention. Much of the outrage about e-cigarettes has come from affluent suburban parents who are justified in wanting to keep their kids off nicotine. Yet teens abuse alcohol and you don’t see moms in Greenwich calling for a ban on pinot noir.

The difference is that these voters aren’t from the classes of society that tend to produce smokers, who are more likely to be low income and have less education, among other identifiers like serving in the military.

The question is not whether vaping is healthy — it isn’t — but whether the frenzy against e-cigarettes is moving faster than the evidence. The answer increasingly looks to be yes, and forgotten in the rush are the 480,000 Americans who die each year from smoking.