The vaping panic and the human fear response

Eight Americans have died, and over 500 fallen ill, apparently from vaping e-cigarettes. Governmental bodies all over are scrambling to ban this scourge.

This is insane. In fact, it will kill more people than if nothing is done.

I wrote that the illnesses “apparently” were from vaping. Remember the silicone breast implant panic? Hundreds of women with implants started getting sick. We leaped to the obvious conclusion that implants caused it. However, many thousands of women had implants, while in America’s population of 150+ million women, many thousands get sick annually, many with mysterious ailments and unknown causes. Did the percentage of women with implants who got sick exceed the percentage of non-implanted women who got sick? No. It turned out there was actually no link between the illnesses and the implants. It was statistically inevitable that some of the women getting sick would also happen to have implants.

I wonder if the same applies to the vaping deaths. Many thousands annually get various lung problems; millions vape. But let’s just assume vaping did cause the particular illnesses seen. However, the great majority are associated not with commercial vaping products but illicit ones bought on the street. Those often contain toxic substances not in properly manufactured e-cigarettes.

This brings to mind the opioid crisis. Almost nobody dies from the drugs manufactured by the much-maligned pharmaceutical companies. People die because they can’t get those drugs and so buy alternatives like heroin on the street, whose potency is unknown, causing overdosing.

Banning e-cigarettes will reprise that story. If people who want them can’t get properly manufactured ones, they’ll turn to unscrupulous street sellers and products with who-knows-what in them. Deaths will skyrocket.

And it seems particularly insane to ban e-cigarettes, blamed for eight deaths, when ordinary conventional cigarettes remain perfectly legal, and kill 450,000 Americans annually (seven million worldwide).

In fact, vaping was invented to be a safer alternative to regular smoking. And it is — vastly safer. There’s no reason the think vaping might cause the lung cancer that kills smokers by the million. In comparison with that, eight vaping deaths is nothing.

E-cigarettes were also conceived as a halfway house to help wean smokers off deadly regular tobacco products. If vaping is banned, more people will continue smoking — adding to the ban’s death toll.

Use by minors is central in this vaping panic. But there’s scant reason to see vaping as a “gateway drug” leading to smoking (or worse). If anything, it’s likely that the more kids vape, the fewer will smoke. And there’s no evidence of serious health harm from e-cigarettes — properly manufactured ones, that is, bought in stores, not on the streets.

But if that doesn’t allay your panic, then simply bar sales to minors. Just like for regular cigarettes. Such a policy is known to be extremely effective.

This e-cigarette health scare is just the latest in a long line of similar ones, going back at least to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. People feared railroad travel would discombobulate internal organs. Most basically, fear is programmed into our psyches by evolution, because given all the real dangers our forebears faced, being fearful rather than carefree helped them survive. We also have a lot of pre-installed cognitive biases that undermine rational comparative evaluation of dangers. Thus many fear flying but think nothing of getting into cars — at least a hundred times riskier. And rush to ban vaping over eight deaths while shrugging at smoking’s millions.

Indeed, many see modernity itself as a veritable death-trap, what with all the chemicals, radiation, pollution, carcinogens, etc. Yet the pre-industrial average lifespan was around 30, while in advanced countries today it’s risen to eighty.

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