Freakonomics Radio

The Truth About the Vaping Crisis

A recent outbreak of illness and death has gotten everyone’s attention — including late-to-the-game regulators. But would a ban on e-cigarettes do more harm than good? We smoke out the facts.

Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
GEN
Published in
10 min readNov 26, 2019

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Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Unless you’ve been hibernating, you’ve probably heard about the dangers posed by e-cigarettes and vaping. Forty-two people in the United States have died and 2,000 have been injured in cases involving a severe respiratory ailment called EVALI, or “e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury.”

People have been vaping for years, but the deaths are new. The epidemic has been met with something between alarm and panic. The reaction is understandable. More than 40 million people around the world now vape, up from just 7 million less than a decade ago. In the United States, roughly one in five high school kids vape.

The U.S. government is now trying to beat back the tide of vaping, but there’s another country that’s been encouraging it. Regulators in the U.K. have embraced e-cigarettes; they view vaping as an effective means of helping smokers quit cigarettes. Unlike the United States, however, the U.K. doesn’t have a youth vaping problem, nor have there been any reported cases of EVALI. How can that be?

Before there were e-cigarettes, there were cigarettes. In the 1950s, 45% of adult Americans said they smoked — and that’s a self-reported number, so the actual number may have been even higher. But eventually, a mountain of scientific evidence emerged showing that cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk for a number of cancers as well as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other bad outcomes.

In the United States and the U.K., only about 20% of adult males now smoke. This decline is considered one of the greatest public health victories of all time. Experts attribute it to growing awareness about the effects of smoking as well as regulations that led to much higher prices and taxes. The latter channel was especially effective at reducing smoking rates among young people, who are particularly price-sensitive. In the late 1990s, more than 35% of American high schoolers smoked; today…

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Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
GEN
Writer for

Stephen J. Dubner is co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio.