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By Gilbert Ross

When politicians play scientist, or worse, doctor, the result is almost always disastrous. There is mischief afoot right now in Albany. As soon as Monday, the State Legislature will take up several bills whose effects would be severe restrictions on electronic cigarettes. Restricting access to e-cigs, the most effective cessation product on the market, will have the unintended consequence of killing addicted smokers.

As is now widely known, e-cigs are devices that resemble cigarettes and supply, upon inhalation, a mist of water vapor with nicotine, propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, flavorings and trace levels of other substances. These relatively new devices seem to help smokers quit more effectively than the FDA-approved products by giving smokers the drug they crave – nicotine – in adequate dose, along with the rituals of smoking: taking a puff, inhaling and exhaling the vapor, often with a glowing LED tip mimicking a cigarette. Another attraction for smokers to switch is the lower price of e-cigs since they have – up until now – escaped the prohibitive excise taxes applied to tobacco products.

Over the past few years, millions of smokers have escaped their deadly addiction by switching to “vaping,” and the market has doubled each of the past three years. Moreover, while sales of e-cigs and other vapor products have skyrocketed, sales of the real thing – toxic, lethal cigarettes – have declined dramatically. Although the FDA-approved products such as patches, gums and drugs work barely more often than using no aid at all, for reasons of their own the official public health groups and nonprofits are all insisting that desperate, addicted smokers stick with the “tried and true” (and useless) products and stay away from e-cigs.

Now the anti-e-cig crusade has come to New York. A Republican senator and a Democratic assemblywoman have co-authored a series of bills that would ban vaping indoors, or anywhere real cigarettes are proscribed; ban the sale of nicotine-containing liquid for personal vaporizers; and apply punitive tobacco-level “sin taxes” on e-cigs.

The rationale, such as it is, for these measures is based on a perverse conflation of e-cigs, which have neither tobacco nor smoke, with cigarettes, whose combustion products supply smokers with the toxins and carcinogens that will eventually kill half of them, and are absent from e-cigs. Politicians have, of necessity, a strong desire to score political points, but in this case the innocent bystanders would be smokers who just want to quit.

The urge to ban first and collect science-based data later must be resisted. Our state would be a fitting place for advocates of public health to make such a stand, and put a stop to the madness of hyper-regulation for its own sake.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is executive director of the American Council on Science and Health.