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Goodbye old friendVia Wikimedia Commons

The US has just banned all Juul e-cigarettes – but why?

‘Like all drug prohibition, this just will make life more miserable for normal Americans’

The US is banning the sale of all products made by Juul, one of the country’s leading vape companies. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said it doesn’t have sufficient data to ensure that marketing Juul’s products is “appropriate for the protection of public health”. This measure comes alongside other anti-nicotine initiatives by the FDA, including plans to significantly reduce the level of nicotine allowed in cigarettes. In March, the agency also announced its intentions to ban menthol cigarettes, following the lead of the UK and the EU which did the same in 2020.

Juul has stated that it will challenge the move. The American Vapor Manufacturers Association, a trade group for the vaping industry, has also hit back against the ban. Amanda Wheeler, the association’s president, said in a statement: “Measured in lives lost and potential destroyed, FDA’s staggering indifference to ordinary Americans and their right to switch to the vastly safer alternative of vaping will surely rank as one of the greatest episodes of regulatory malpractice in American history.”

But elsewhere, the American Lung Association countered that the ban was “most welcome and long overdue”, on the basis that “Juul’s campaign to target and hook kids on tobacco has gone on for far too long.” Juul has long been blamed for the rise in teen vaping in the US: in 2020, the firm was banned from selling fruit and mint-flavoured products on the basis that they risked enticing underage users.

But some critics argue that the FDA’s latest move risks having a counter-productive impact on public health. “Yet again, it seems American drug policy is incapable of producing nuanced regulations,” Zachary Siegel, a journalist who covers drug policy and co-writes the Substance newsletter, tells Dazed. “The FDA itself said Juul does not pose an ‘imminent threat’ to consumers, whereas combustible tobacco products most definitely do. Of course, e-cigs carry some risk. But an outright prohibition betrays some amount of magical thinking rather than doing the harder task of acknowledging risk and building a market that attempts to manage and mitigate it,” Speigel says. “American regulators still don’t understand harm reduction.”

In contrast, the UK has taken more of a harm reduction-based approach: it’s not exactly pro-vaping, but certainly sees it as the lesser of two evils. A review by Public Health England (PHE) in 2018 found that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than traditional cigarettes, and was helping as many as 20,000 people a year quit smoking. At the time, John Newton, the Director of Health Improvement at PHE, said that while people shouldn’t take up vaping if they don’t already smoke – if they do, then “there is no situation where it would be better for your health to continue smoking rather than switching completely to vaping.” The NHS has also encouraged pregnant smokers to make the switch, and MPs have even suggested prescribing e-cigarettes in pharmacies (as a man who spends over half of my monthly income on Pink Lemonade-flavoured Elf Bars, I would heartily endorse this policy.)

“Like all drug prohibition this just will make life more miserable for normal Americans. If they want to help our health, give us universal healthcare!” – P.E Moskowitz

The UK’s more nuanced approach is helped by the fact that vaping among young people who’ve never smoked before is much rarer here than it is in the US. But this isn’t an accident: a spokesperson for PHE has suggested that the discrepancy is because we have tighter advertising regulations (you can’t advertise vaping on TV, the radio and social media) and a lower nicotine cap, meaning the products sold here are less addictive than their US equivalents. While it’s surely a good thing to discourage teenagers from picking up an expensive and still potentially harmful habit, the FDA risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater by making it harder for adults to make informed, positive choices regarding their health. 

In both the UK and the US, marginalised communities (people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, people on lower incomes, and people who experience mental illness, among others) are more likely to smoke. A public health approach which embraces vaping as a safer alternative can be an effective way of reducing smoking-related harms among these groups. In any case, the history of drug policy has proven beyond all doubt that regulation focused on harm reduction is far more effective than prohibition. 

“Like all drug prohibition this just will make life more miserable for normal Americans,” P.E Moskowitz, journalist and author of Rabbit Hole, a forthcoming book about the role drugs play in the US, tells Dazed. “If they want to help our health, give us universal healthcare!”