Robert Gehrke: Politicians should let facts guide their response to vaping illnesses

Robert Gehrke

The recent warnings against e-cigarettes haven’t stopped politicians from blowing fat clouds.

But instead of vapor puffs, officials are seizing the opportunity presented by six deaths and 380 vaping-related illnesses to cloud and conflate two mostly unrelated issues: how to respond to a health crisis and their own ongoing crusade to crack down, if not eliminate, e-cigarette use.

One of the more absurd spectacles I’ve seen took place last week, when state Rep. Paul Ray trotted out concrete proof that more than 80% of vape juices are contaminated with traces of THC, opioids and PCP. He joined Rep. Eric Hutchings and Brian Besser, special agent in charge of Utah for the Drug Enforcement Administration, to call for a ban on vape juices.

It was eye-popping, sensational — and completely and utterly bogus. The president of the company that did the testing disavowed it, saying the type of test that was done is not reliable when testing oils.

“It’s a coin toss,” said Mike Murano, president of Beechtree Diagnostics. “I would not use that information as scientifically valid.”

It was pure hysteria, but that’s where we are. Nobody knows what is really causing these serious vape-related illnesses. More to the point: Some politicians don’t even care.

There has been some good research out of the University of Utah identifying oily droplets in the immune cells. It tells us how people are getting sick, but not why or why there is an outbreak now and not in the years leading up to the spate of illnesses.

We know two of the six deaths — one in Minnesota and one in Oregon — and most of the cases were reported by people with a history of vaping THC, a chemical extracted from marijuana.

The dearth of facts hasn’t kept politicians from doing what they do and trying to capitalize on a crisis.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was among those last week who called on the Food and Drug Administration to pull every vape product from the shelves. Not long after, the FDA announced it was working on a plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes until it can conduct a more thorough review, a move championed by President Donald Trump.

The frenzied leap into action comes after the FDA had completely abdicated its responsibility to regulate e-cigarettes. The agency was supposed to start reviewing e-cigarette products last summer, but former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb punted, postponing the effort to 2022.

Anti-smoking groups sued the FDA, alleging it was shirking its responsibility, and a federal court ordered the agency to begin the review by early next year.

The FDA’s indifference kind of hamstrung Utah regulators. Here, rules had been put in place banning the sale of products that hadn’t been approved by the FDA. But, because of the FDA’s inaction, regulators decided — rightly, I believe — that they didn’t want to shut down every vape shop and pull every product off the shelves.

Now, of course, what had been a low priority is, according to new FDA Commissioner Alex Azar, a “national epidemic.”

It’s important, however, to keep this “epidemic” in perspective. Six people have died from vaping-related lung disease and 380 are sick. That’s bad. But compare that with the 480,000 who the Centers for Disease Control die every year from smoking cigarettes.

Or, if you want to stretch the comparison a little, consider the 335 people who have died this year in mass shootings.

It’s true that vaping is on the rise, particularly among young people. The FDA cited preliminary national survey data that said a quarter of high school students had used vape products in the past 30 days.

The most recent data we have for Utah is from 2017 and it shows a couple things. One is that 7.6% of school-aged students reported using a vape product in the past 30 days. It also shows that youth smoking is at an all-time low, falling from 8.5% in 2009 to 3.8% in 2017.

Among adults, 8.9% say they are smokers, down 2.4% over six years.

National studies have found that part of the reason the number of smokers is declining is due to vaping. A study released last month by the Progressive Policy Institute said the use of e-cigarettes contributed to more than 3.8 million people stopping the use of cigarettes. The evidence also showed, according to the study, that vaping is not a gateway to tobacco use.

To be clear: I’m not saying vaping is good for you. It’s not. There are health effects we know — high blood pressure, heart disease and so forth — and effects we don’t. If you don’t vape now, for crying out loud, do not start!

And maybe banning the fruity, bubble gum and candy flavors is the right way to go to curb teens picking up the habit. But we should also make our policy based on facts, and not in response to a mass hysteria that we don’t yet understand.

And there are other reasonable steps we can take.

Utah is already one of 18 states that has passed legislation to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — to 21. (The age rises to 20 next July and 21 the following year).

It is reasonable to tax e-cigarettes and vape products to some degree — provided the tax is not nearly doubling the cost, as Ray has proposed. A portion of the revenue can go to regulation, enforcement and cessation programs.

Consider that last year Utah made nearly $142 million taxing tobacco sales and spent just $7 million on prevention and it’s worth pondering just how committed Utah is to reducing tobacco use.

Legislators could also mandate that private insurance cover tobacco cessation and (stop me if you’ve heard this one) fully expand Medicaid, which covers services to help people quit.

These are just some of the discussions we should be having, but they should be grounded in reality and solid data, not in the midst of a fat cloud of twisted truth and distortions.