By Kaleigh Rogers
There’s a well worn stereotype of a vape bro sucking on e-cigarettes because he thinks blowing thick clouds of vapor makes him look cool. In reality, the majority of vapers (even the cloud chasers) are actually smokers looking for a way to get off the sin sticks. But with strict new regulations introduced by the Food and Drug Administration this year, many in the industry are predicting that hundreds of businesses will be forced to shut down, and some vapers may resort to going back to their original vice: cigarettes.
“It’s very, very difficult to predict people’s behavior in theoretical terms until it actually happens,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, a tobacco researcher at Boston University who runs a fact-checking blog on public agency statements about vaping. “People are actually pretty bad at predicting their behavior, especially when it comes to addictive behavior.”
Siegel told me that, anecdotally, he’s heard from vapers who said they will switch back to smoking if vaping becomes too expensive or difficult to do. Unfortunately there’s no major studies measuring these attitudes. However there are some figures we can look at, which together paint a picture of a potential public health backlash of the FDA’s vaping regulations.
Part of the regulations require all vaping manufacturers to individually apply for approval for each product they make. That means every flavor of e-liquid, at every nicotine strength, must individually be approved through a time-consuming and costly application process. The FDA itself estimates each application will take 1,500 hours to fill out, and cost several hundred thousand dollars. Many small and mid-size vaping companies say this will put them out of business, which means the selection and variety of vaping products will be drastically cut as the regulations come into effect. Some advocacy groups estimate the industry could shrink as much as 98 percent.
While we don’t know for sure what effect this will have on former smokers who are current vapers, there’s some evidence it will push them back onto cigarettes. Two separate studies (one from a Yale researcher and another from Cornell) recently concluded that reducing access to e-cigarettes actually increases smoking rates in teens. Neither found a huge increase (both were less than one percent), but they’re early signs of a trend.
And a recent small poll, commissioned by e-cigarette company V2 whose data was collected by a company called SSI, asked 300 US vapers about their thoughts on the new regulations. If regulations made e-cigarettes more expensive or difficult to get, 18 percent of respondents said they’d vape less and smoke more, and 8 percent said they’d go back to smoking exclusively. If regulations banned e-cigarettes outright, 49 percent of respondents said they’d go back to smoking again.
Of course, these are small and few data points, but that’s the problem with e-cigarettes: They are still a relatively new technology, on which we have achingly scarce scientific data.
“What we do have is basic economic principles—increasing cost or decreasing availability causes substitution—and selected empirical evidence that both confirms that effect and that there is some degree of substitution between the two sets of products,” said Jonathan Adler, a law professor and the director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University. “If vaping is restricted, we would expect them to revert to other forms of tobacco products because—as former smokers—they’ve already demonstrated their preference for satisfying their nicotine craving over abstinence.”
While it’s certainly not conclusive that regulations will push all vapers back to smoking, the evidence is starting to mount suggesting at least some former smokers will fall back on old habits as regulations shrink the vaping market.