Substitution in Nicotine Consumption
By David Henderson
Yesterday’s electronic New York Times and today’s print edition carries the news story “Use of E-Cigarettes Rises Sharply Among Teenagers, Report Says” by Sabrina Tavernise.
It’s actually very good. Indeed, it reminds me of some of the best of the Wall Street Journal news stories of the 1970s when I started reading that publication daily in graduate school. It’s a mix of interesting facts put together in an understandable narrative that will show any reader with an open mind that e-cigarettes are substituting, especially with young people, for cigarettes, pipes, and cigars. An excerpt:
But the report also told another story. From 2011 to 2014, the share of high school students who smoked traditional cigarettes declined substantially, to 9 percent from 16 percent, and use of cigars and pipes ebbed too. The shift suggested that some teenage smokers may be using e-cigarettes to quit.
The narrative also cites the view that, from a health point of view, this is good. An excerpt:
Smoking is still the single-biggest cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 480,000 Americans a year, and most scientists agree that e-cigarettes, which deliver the nicotine but not the dangerous tar and other chemicals, are likely to be far less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
I was also pleased to see her place a counterpoint to the “ain’t it awful” views of those who simply want people not to smoke and not to vape. She quotes an “ain’t it awful” official:
“This is a really bad thing,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., who noted that research had found that nicotine harms the developing brain. “This is another generation being hooked by the tobacco industry. It makes me angry.”
Then she lays out the counter position:
But the numbers had a bright side. The decline in cigarette use among teenagers accelerated substantially from 2013 to 2014, dropping by 25 percent, the fastest pace in years.
The pattern seemed to go against the dire predictions of anti-tobacco advocates that e-cigarettes would become a gateway to cigarettes among youths, and suggested they might actually be helping, not hurting. The pattern resembled those in Sweden and Norway, where a rise in the use of snus, a smokeless tobacco product, was followed by a sharp decline in cigarette use.
“They’re not a gateway in, and they might be accelerating the gateway out,” said David B. Abrams, executive director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies, an anti-tobacco group.
What’s striking is the amount of space she gives to that position.
She also points out that the FDA is taking steps toward regulating e-cigarettes, and here is the only place where I would fault the reporter. Ms. Tavernise writes:
The numbers came as a surprise and seemed to put policy makers into uncharted territory. The Food and Drug Administration took its first tentative step toward regulating e-cigarettes last year, but the process is slow, and many experts worry that habits are forming far faster than rules are being written. Because e-cigarettes are so new, scientists are still gathering evidence on their long-term health effects, leaving regulators scrambling to gather data.
There’s nothing inaccurate in that paragraph. So what’s the problem? There’s no hint in the news story–possibly because Ms. Tavernise thinks it’s going beyond the story but, if so, I disagree–about what some plausible FDA regulations will look like.
Think about it. If the FDA regulates, it will not be to make e-cigarettes more available. It will be to make them more costly, either in terms of accessibility or in terms of price, or both. If so, the FDA regulation will slow this healthy substitution away from more-toxic substances. Possibly, she couldn’t find an economist willing to apply basic microeconomics to this issue. If so, I’m available.