A recent report on e-cigarettes brought an unusual level of scrutiny to the office of the Surgeon General from critics on both the left and the right. The report, titled ”E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults,” offered a number of misleading conclusions on the use of electronic cigarettes, taking an alarmist tone that characterized the rising popularity of e-cigarettes as “a growing public health threat to our nation’s young people.” In so doing, SG Vivek Murthy infused the debate over tackling the dramatic health consequences of smoking with the warped ideology that Obama’s White House made famous.
The Surgeon General is still considered the “leading spokesperson on matters of public health,” despite the influence of the office having waned significantly since the 1960s, when SG Luther Terry made history by concluding that there was a causal link between cancer and smoking. The new report and its conclusions, called “scientifically dishonest,” by one public health researcher, deserve a far greater level of scrutiny than they have received from much of the media. In addition to taking an ideological perspective on e-cigarettes, the report cherry picks data to support its alarmist conclusion. SG Murthy main fallacy is to refer to vaping as “a form of tobacco use” – inaccurate, given that e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco. From there on out, the report ignores data that doesn’t fit its narrative, such as the Royal College of Physicians’ conclusion that the use of e-cigarettes is unlikely to entail more than 5 percent of the risk associated with smoking cigarettes. It fails to acknowledge the potential of e-cigarettes for harm reduction if used as a substitute for smoking, focusing instead on the dangers of vaping relative to not smoking altogether.
The SG’s uncompromising perspective mirrors that of the World Health Organization, which stood by its longstanding rigid opposition to e-cigarettes when its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) met in November, maintaining support for a previously leaked goal of regulating e-cigarettes in the exact same manner as tobacco with a long-term goal of banning both. The meetings have earned a reputation for being secretive and inaccessible to the press and public. Voices at the WHO have pushed to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products. This commitment was reaffirmed this year, along with a strengthened resolve to continue limiting the media’s access to the meetings, out of fear of private tobacco influence. Both of these two goals set at the meeting are likely to draw even more public protest when the FCTC reconvenes in 2018.
The Surgeon General and the FCTC are making the same mistake in their effort to curb the global health crisis – focusing only on the potential harm of e-cigarettes, and ignoring the science that has shown this to be minimal relative to cigarettes. Per the Royal College of Physicians:
“Large-scale substitution of e-cigarettes, or other non-tobacco nicotine products, for tobacco smoking has the potential to prevent almost all the harm from smoking in society. Promoting e-cigarettes…and other non-tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible, as a substitute for smoking, is therefore likely to generate significant health gains in the UK.”
Experts have also estimated that e-cigarettes have already helped tens of thousands of smokers quit much more harmful tobacco products. With so few other effective methods to help smokers quit, such data deserves not to be ignored. Instead, the SG report focuses exclusively on the risks presented to young people who are not already smokers, making almost no mention of the established benefits for adult smokers. Murthy seizes on this point to argue for the stricter regulation of e-cigarettes, which paradoxically could deter smokers from quitting by turning to vaping. These selective conclusions hint at a larger trend of anti-vaping sentiment. A recent documentary called “A Billion Lives” draws connections between the pharmaceutical industry and the considerable amounts of money governments make from the sale of cigarettes.
Surgeon General Murthy’s term isn’t up until 2018, but the incoming Trump administration should use every tool at its disposal to bring an end to the fear mongering perpetuated by Obama’s SG. The global health problems brought on by cigarette smoking, which is still on the rise in much of the developing world, are too dire to ignored a potential solution with as much supporting data as for e-cigarettes. It is important to not let perfection become an enemy of the good in trying to address something truly bad.