The Great Vape Debate

A new survey shows e-cigarettes struggling in the court of public opinion
no vaping sign

What they don't know won’t hurt them, right? Or rather, what they don't know might hurt you.

As the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) considers the U.S. Food and Drug administration's (FDA) proposed regulations of electronic cigarettes, a new poll conducted by Stat and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests most adults support regulations of the nascent segment.

Based on an October phone poll of 1,014 U.S. adults, the Stat-Harvard survey showed 65% of respondents believe electronic cigarettes are harmful. Even more troublesome, many survey respondents expressed uncertainty about electronic cigarettes’ potential risk compared to combustibles: Just 44% said e-cigs were less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, and 32% listed e-cigs as equally harmful.

Proponents of vaping—and even a recent CDC report—suggest these products reduce harm and help current smokers quit. The survey, however, found that just 38% of those polled believe electronic cigarettes can aid in cessation, vs. 47% who said e-cigs are not an effective cessation tool.

Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis for Harvard and director of the poll, told Stat these negative views of the segment have led to widespread support of regulatory action.

“They believe it’s less harmful than tobacco, but they do think it is harmful,” he said. “That sets off all the other answers.”

65%

Amount of respondents to a recent phone poll who believe electronic cigarettes are harmful.

The survey showed specifically enthusiastic support for warning labels, a minimum-purchase age, use limitations and advertising bans. Ninety-four percent of respondents were in favor of labels warning e-cig consumers that the products contain nicotine; 90% supported banning e-cig sales to those under 18; 69% were against e-cig use in public places (including restaurants and workplaces); and 61% supported a government ban of e-cig TV ads.

The main area of division in the poll seemed to be the issue of flavor restrictions. When asked whether flavored e-cigs and liquids should be banned, 48% of respondents said no, while 46% were in favor of a flavor ban.

Even those conducting the poll were surprised by the firm stance the public has taken on electronic cigarettes.

“For a new product … you wouldn’t have expected that people would have reached as firm a judgment about this as they have,” Blendon said. On the regulatory actions the poll asked about, he said, “Their responses are nearly identical to what you find asking about tobacco cigarettes.”

Gregory Conley, president of American Vaping Association, Hoboken, N.J., said “unethical propaganda campaigns” against electronic cigarettes have led to “a confused populace” and, therefore, negative poll results.

“This poll is not measuring public opinion, but the effectiveness of a well-funded corporate strategy to destroy a category,” he said.

An Oct. 19 submission of the final deeming regulations by the FDA to the OMB was the eighth step in the federal government’s nine-step regulatory process to deem whether certain tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, are under the FDA’s jurisdiction.

The deeming regulations are only the first set of regulations that would govern cigars, pipe tobacco and e-cigarettes. With the FDA sponsoring half a billion dollars in research studies on all kinds of tobacco products, the agency intends to use the results of the studies to draft additional regulations in the future.