Op-Ed | Tobacco policy in New York should help those looking for an alternative

Closeup hand of man holding a cigarette.Tobacco cigarette Butt on the Floor in dark background for world Tobacco day concept or stop smoking
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Summer heat waves and Canadian wildfire smoke have smothered New Yorkers this year, creating nearly unbearable conditions outdoors. In fact, the smoke coming from Canadian wildfires is estimated to be as damaging as smoking 22 cigarettes a day. That is scary to think about. 

When it comes to smoking and the harm it causes, we know that smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of death and disease in the U.S. Like our environmental and climate experts who follow the science when it comes to the origins of Canadian wildfires, we should also expect – and demand – that public health officials follow the science when it comes to smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction. 

The science is clear that e-cigarettes and vaping products are dramatically safer than smoking cigarettes, but right now, there is a lot of confusion about this critical tool for smoking cessation and harm reduction. In the State of New York, this confusion resulted in a ban on flavored vaping products, which supporters say helps reduce the use of vaping products by New York’s minors. 

The unfortunate drawback of this decision, however, is that by banning flavored vaping products, we are removing a critical smoking cessation and tobacco harm reduction tool for New Yorkers who use combustible tobacco cigarettes – smokers who are disproportionately lower-income New Yorkers, members of the Black or LGBTQIA+ communities, and those struggling with mental health or drug addiction issues. 

These are the New Yorkers I represented in Congress, and these are people I know, love, and want to have access to less harmful nicotine alternatives. We should be supporting policy that preserves any tool which helps get them off combustible tobacco cigarettes.

This isn’t just an opinion: It is supported by the former presidents of the anti-tobacco group, the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, who recently challenged the our government’s vaping policies top to bottom. They explain the inherent importance of supporting vaping as a tool for reducing smoking rates and have urged U.S. lawmakers to reshape U.S. policy to encourage vaping and, specifically, ensure adult access to flavored vaping products.  

Yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has continued to refuse e-cigarettes to be sold, while one report shows that FDA has approved the sale of over 1,200 new combustible tobacco products. Something is dangerously wrong when FDA approves the introduction of 900 new cigarettes for U.S. consumers to smoke, while refusing to approve the sale of a single less harmful flavored vaping product.  

New York’s regulations only add to the unbalanced approach to vaping highlighted by the leading tobacco-control scientists. In this year’s budget, the state legislature rejected a call for a ban of flavored combustible tobacco products, and yet, New York still bans less harmful flavored e-cigarettes – even though they can help people quit smoking. 

We can do two things at the same time. Yes, we should be keeping vaping products out of minors’ hands, and yes, we should be allowing this critical tool to remain on the market for adult users looking for an off-ramp from smoking. But current policy doesn’t reflect this approach. 

There is a way to strike a balance. By imposing smart regulations that don’t hinder industry innovation on vaping products and sales, especially for the protection of minors, we can achieve this goal. Those smart regulations could include a number of things such as placing flavored vaping products in adult-only stores, implementing an end to marketing for children, or limiting the number of products an individual can purchase to stamp down on the illegal re-sale market. 

These are the types of regulations that should be championed in New York and the U.S. at large. These are the types of smart regulations that don’t hinder industry innovation and actually do something to protect minors while continuing to allow responsible adults to have access to a critical smoking cessation and harm reduction tool. 

Opponents of vaping have never offered an alternative for those looking to get off combustible cigarettes. These kinds of alternatives are the solution. New Yorkers are tough, and they know how to fight. As lawmakers in Albany consider future laws impacting the vaping industry, we should expect that they adopt legislation which will give New Yorkers the tools they need to fight smoking and lead better lives. 

Edolphus “Ed” Towns Jr. is a former Democratic Congressman who represented New York’s 10th and 11th Congressional Districts. He also served as the Chair of the House Oversight Committee.