E-cigarettes let people get a hit of nicotine without burning tobacco.
Avoiding burning tobacco is the single greatest preventative health measure human beings can take, given the diseases conventional cigarettes cause.
Unfortunately, our government and media now act as if vaping e-cigarettes is the health crisis.
"Your kids are not an experiment! Protect them from e-cigarettes," warns former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a CDC PSA.
My former employer, ABC News, which never finds a risk it doesn't hype, has run more than a dozen scare stores on vaping. A "Nightline" reporter warned about kids "addicted to nicotine before they even graduate from middle school!"
Yet compared to regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes are "extraordinarily less harmful," says Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "We should really be encouraging people to use vaping."
Calling vaping safer than smoking doesn't mean the risks are zero. Vapor contains harmful chemicals, too. But scientists say it's far less harmful than smoking. If smokers switched to e-cigarettes, that would save millions of lives.
Nicotine is what makes both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes addictive. But nicotine itself isn't that bad. Like caffeine, it's a stimulant.
"On the spectrum of drugs that you can become addicted to," says Minton, "nicotine and caffeine are very similar."
The big health risks come from the 7,000 other chemicals generated by burning tobacco leaves.
By contrast, e-cigarette smoke is mostly just flavored vapor, which is less likely to harm anyone.
It doesn't even smell as bad as cigarettes. "Somebody who's vaping a huge cloud of Vanilla Cherry Blast, or whatever they're vaping, is way more pleasant than standing next to somebody exhaling smoke from a combustible cigarette," observed Minton.
Full disclosure, Minton's think tank received some money from companies that make e-cigarettes. Nevertheless, she's right. Vaping is a much safer alternative.
"While there are a few lunatics who say e-cigarettes are more harmful — based on zero evidence — every legitimate scientist who's investigated this issue has said, 'We don't know all the risks, but we can say they are less harmful than smoking.'"
Nonetheless, America's health police have gone to war against vaping.
Some cities want to ban vaping. The CDC funds ads that say, "Young people should never use these kinds of products!"
But kids will. Kids experiment with all sorts of things. Far better that they vape than smoke.
Actually, CDC data show kids had been vaping a little less since 2014, but recently there was a spike.
"The only explanation I can come up with," said Minton, "is that the CDC and FDA have advertised these products by talking about them so much! The CDC telling children you shouldn't do this is not necessarily going to make many of them say no. Maybe it makes it more attractive to them."
Minton acknowledges that it's bad if kids become addicted to nicotine but says that's a risk worth taking.
"Do we want children to become addicted to anything? No. But keeping a small percent of teenagers from trying e-cigarettes is not worth sacrificing adults whose lives could be saved."
About half of teens who take up regular cigarettes will never quit. About a third of those users will die from smoking-related illnesses. Smoking is America's leading preventable cause of death.
So banning alternatives is not a wise move for public health. Minton points to the example of snus, a moist tobacco chew popular in Sweden. Snus is not completely harmless, so the rest of Europe banned it. But "Sweden currently has the lowest smoking and lung cancer rates of any EU country."
Banning snus in Europe was a public health tragedy. Now the U.S. is doing something similar with e-cigarettes.
Minton says that in "states that enacted (age restrictions) on e-cigarettes, teenage smoking rates go up because when teens who want to do something like smoking can't get ahold of e-cigarettes, they just go to smoking."
Thanks to government's paranoid warnings and media hype, Americans who might make the rational choice to pick e-cigarettes over burning tobacco are now more likely to be killed by conventional cigarettes.