WASHINGTON — Most Americans believe electronic cigarettes are harmful to people’s health, according to a new national poll — even though scientists have not reached a consensus on the risks of the increasingly popular products.
The results of the poll, by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, could bolster the Food and Drug Administration as it moves to regulate e-cigarettes for the first time. There is solid support for a broad range of government restrictions among both Democrats and Republicans, with virtually no partisan differences to be found.
E-cigarettes have been around only since 2004 — too little time for researchers to have completed definitive studies on their health effects — but already they are more popular among teenagers than conventional cigarettes.
Manufacturers market the products as safer than tobacco cigarettes and as an effective way to help people stop smoking. The poll results, however, suggest that the public isn’t buying this pitch.
Read the full poll results here
E-cigarette users don’t inhale cancer-causing tobacco smoke. Instead, the devices produce a vapor from heated liquid nicotine. For many public health experts, though, the concern is that they still contain nicotine — which is addictive — and may expose users to various toxic chemicals.
Americans do think they’re less dangerous than tobacco cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean they think the products are safe. The survey found that 65 percent of adults believe e-cigarettes are harmful to the people who use them. That’s less than the 96 percent who say tobacco cigarettes are harmful, but more than the 58 percent who say the same thing about marijuana.
Those results appear to be the main reason the public is ready to embrace regulations that would treat e-cigarettes largely like tobacco cigarettes, including rules that go beyond what are actively being considered at the federal level.
“They believe it’s less harmful than tobacco, but they do think it is harmful, and that sets off all the other answers,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard who directed the poll.
STAT-Harvard Poll on E-Cigarettes
Based on a telephone poll of 1,014 US adults conducted Oct. 7-11.
(Visualization: Talia Bronshtein/STAT)
Roughly 9 out of 10 Americans support banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors under age 18 — a law already passed in most states. A similar number favor requiring warning labels stating that e-cigarettes contain nicotine.
About 7 out of 10 say people shouldn’t be allowed to use e-cigarettes indoors in public places like restaurants and workplaces, and 6 out of 10 say the government should ban e-cigarette ads on TV, just as it bans ads for tobacco cigarettes.
Even the biggest partisan differences are slight. The warning labels on e-cigarette packages are supported by 98 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans.
And on taxes — a subject that usually sets off food fights in Washington — there is solid support from both parties: 63 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats say they support taxing e-cigarettes in the same way that tobacco cigarettes are taxed.
The results suggest that Americans have largely made up their minds on how e-cigarettes should be treated, and that they’re using tobacco cigarettes as their frame of reference — even as scientists are still trying to determine what the health consequences of e-cigarettes are.
“For a new product … you wouldn’t have expected that people would have reached as firm a judgment about this as they have,” said Blendon. On the proposed policies the poll asked about, he added, “their responses are nearly identical to what you find asking about tobacco cigarettes.”
That’s how Anna Glasscock, a Republican retiree who lives near Springfield, Ill., decided her views on e-cigarettes. She’s a former smoker who knows the health risks of tobacco and said e-cigarettes “shouldn’t even exist” because “any addictions are not good.”
Glasscock, one of the people in the poll who agreed to a follow-up interview, said e-cigarettes should be regulated and taxed — she considers it a “sin tax.” Even though e-cigarettes are different from tobacco cigarettes, she said, “I don’t see that replacing one with the other makes any difference.”
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, the main advocacy group for e-cigarette makers, blamed the poll results on “unethical propaganda campaigns” against e-cigarettes that have led to “a confused populace.”
“This poll is not measuring public opinion, but the effectiveness of a well-funded corporate strategy to destroy a category that is eroding a cash cow for Big Pharma,” he said.
But Vince Willmore, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said it was “not surprising that the public wants to apply common-sense regulations to e-cigarettes” and urged the Obama administration to issue the FDA’s e-cigarette regulations as soon as possible.
The one issue the public is split on is whether to ban the sale of flavored nicotine cartridges — an issue that doesn’t have any parallel with tobacco cigarettes. Fewer than half of Americans think that’s a good idea.
Supporters argue that flavored cartridges attract young people to start using e-cigarettes, and that they will later move on to tobacco cigarettes.
The telephone poll of 1,014 adults was conducted Oct. 7-11 and has a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
John Dunn of Garland, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, said he has used e-cigarettes to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes. But a friend who tried the same thing got hooked on e-cigarettes.
“I think they’re pretty different, but also I’ve seen people get on the vapors and not be able to stop,” said Dunn, 33, a Democrat. He’s in favor of some regulation, including warning labels: “They should know they might get addicted.”
E-cigarette makers say that e-cigarettes help smokers quit, and there is some evidence from a small number of studies that they do — although scientists say more research is needed. The survey found that 38 percent of Americans believe e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking, but that 47 percent don’t think they’re effective.
At the same time, public health advocates — and government regulators such as the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have strong concerns that e-cigarettes serve as a “gateway” for non-smokers to start using tobacco products. More than half of Americans — 56 percent — believe e-cigarettes make teenagers more likely to try tobacco cigarettes, according to the poll.
At a panel discussion on e-cigarettes last month, CDC Director Tom Frieden declared that e-cigarettes are “highly addictive” and that the goal should be to “keep kids away from all forms of nicotine.” The CDC reported earlier this year that e-cigarette use tripled among high-school and middle-school students from 2013 to 2014.
The FDA is preparing to issue a final version of a rule that would extend the agency’s authority to regulate e-cigarettes. The proposal, recently submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final revisions, would likely require pre-market reviews of e-cigarettes — a process that is used to prove whether potentially risky products are safe. The FDA is also expected to ban e-cigarette sales to minors under age 18 and require warning labels stating that the products contain nicotine. The regulation drew 135,000 comments from the public when the original proposal was published.
The agency is also considering a separate proposal that could require broader warnings about the dangers of nicotine — especially accidental exposure to infants and children — and possibly require child-resistant packages for e-liquids, which are liquid nicotine combined with colorings and flavorings.
Some in Congress, however, are trying to prevent the FDA from taking action that might damage the industry. A House spending bill includes a provision by Representative Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) that would keep the FDA from requiring premarket review for e-cigarettes that are already being sold in stores. Aderholt’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Even if much of the public is ready to regulate e-cigarettes, Aderholt will find at least some support from those who don’t think they are dangerous enough to need new rules.
“They’re not a cigarette. The only thing you’re inhaling is vapor,” said Chris Grieser, a Republican from Cheyenne, Wyo. who participated in the survey. “That’s no different from standing over a pot of boiling water.”
Researchers aren’t so sure about that, though. One study earlier this year found that e-cigarette vapor can contain cancer-causing formaldehyde at levels far higher than those found in tobacco cigarettes.
The original e-cigarettes were manufactured by small companies, but when it became clear that they were catching on, the more established tobacco companies such as RJ Reynolds and British American Tobacco bought out or partnered with some of these smaller businesses, or launched their own divisions. This has given more clout to industry groups such as the American Vaping Association.
This is the first of a series of monthly polls being conducted by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.