Democrats cheered after they managed to prevent a carve-out for e-cigarettes in last week’s year-end spending bill, but one congressman — an admitted “vaper” himself — says they’ve only succeeded in making more people end up choosing to go back to traditional, and deadlier, tobacco.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served tours of duty as a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and who, like many other veterans, picked up the smoking habit, fired a letter off to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi this week telling her that the very thing she was gloating over stopping could end up saving lives.
“We quit smoking cigarettes, which Democrats claim to hate. We smoke vapor with nicotine instead, and Democrats hate that too — not because it’s bad for you, but because they don’t control it,” Mr. Hunter told The Washington Times. “This is all about control. Just like Obamacare.”
Mrs. Pelosi and fellow Democrats won a fight to keep the Food and Drug Administration on track to regulate e-cigarettes, which are sold as alternatives to traditional smoking, delivering a nicotine-tinged mist that’s supposed to meet smokers’ need for the drug, without the carcinogenic byproducts of tobacco.
The FDA has written new rules that would give them the power to regulate e-cigarettes, forcing almost all existing products off the market and sending manufacturers scrambling to go through an extensive review process that could take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for each approval.
The FDA rule is awaiting final White House approval, but e-cigarette supporters mounted a last-minute effort to head it off, trying to include language in the year-end “omnibus” spending bill to limit how far the FDA could go.
Democrats fought off those attempts.
“The GOP policy rider exempting e-cigarettes and other tobacco products — including flavored products designed specifically to attract young smokers — from FDA’s pre-market review requirement, was not included in the Omnibus,” Mrs. Pelosi touted in a letter to fellow Democrats, putting it on par with other Democratic wins such as keeping funding flowing to Planned Parenthood and preserving President Obama’s Syrian refugee program.
The fight marks a reversal for some on both sides. Democrats are usually the ones pushing for options such as needle-exchange programs to lower the risk of HIV or other infections for intravenous drug users, but in this case argue against the lesser evil of e-cigarettes.
Republicans, meanwhile, are usually wary of following Europe’s lead, but in this case point to Britain, where a massive review of health data has concluded that e-cigarettes are not only 95 percent less harmful than smoking, but they do not generally serve as a gateway to more tobacco use.
The review, published by Public Health England in August, said of 2.6 million e-cigarette users in Britain, almost all of them were current or former smokers who were using the devices to help them quit — not newbies picking up a habit from scratch.
Strikingly, the study said the real problem was that a large number of people didn’t know that e-cigarettes were safer than traditional smoking.
In the U.S., the FDA has been reluctant to adopt those findings.
“E-cigarettes have not been fully studied,” the agency says, adding that it has questions about the effects of using the product, and about its potential as a gateway to more tobacco use.
Erika Sward, assistant vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association, said they were happy Democrats won the fight in the spending bill, saying more research needs to be done.
“Too much is unknown, which is why FDA needs to have the authority to oversee these products,” she said.
A big part of the current battle is over flavored e-cigarettes, which anti-smoking advocates say appear to be designed to hook kids on the product, just as flavored cigarettes did. But Mr. Hunter, in his letter to Mrs. Pelosi, said the flavors actually serve as an incentive to drop cigarettes.
“It defeats the purpose to have products that taste no different than what someone is trying hard to avoid,” he wrote.
Mrs. Pelosi’s office referred questions about the issue to a top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee that wrote the spending bill. A spokesperson at the committee didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Vaping advocates said Mrs. Pelosi’s opposition to e-cigarettes was particularly surprising given how prevalent the practice is among her own constituents.
“Nancy Pelosi’s opposition to vape products puts her in direct conflict with the public health interest of her state, given the $18 billion a year California spends on smoking related health care costs,” said Julie Woessner, executive director of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association. “Her opposition to vape products is particularly vexing given the tens of thousands of vapers in San Francisco.”
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