Inspired by countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, puritanical officials in San Francisco have voted to ban the sale of e-cigarettes. The law is due to be signed off by San Francisco’s mayor within 10 days and, barring legal challenges, will come into force seven months later. Cigarettes will remain on shop shelves as before.

The vape ban will leave San Franciscans unable to access one of the safest and most popular alternatives to cigarettes. The best available evidence shows that e-cigarettes are at least 95 per cent less harmful than smoking and twice as effective as nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation.

Aside from inevitably creating an unregulated black market, the simple truth is that these paternalistic zealots are putting more people in the ground in the name of “public health advocacy”. 

All of this is premised on a classic argument from the nanny-state playbook: think of the children. Petty bureaucrats are also concerned that vaping is a gateway to smoking cigarettes despite all signs pointing to the contrary. Writing earlier this year for The Washington Times, Carrie Wade and David Bahr of the R Street Institute explain:

“Studies supporting the notion that kids who try vaping will dive head first into combustible use are critically flawed – they cannot control for kids who would end up smoking anyway and rarely acknowledge those who use e-cigarettes in the first place. In reality, vape use is highly concentrated in those who already smoke or have tried smoking.

Indeed, the national academies of science notes that associations between smoking and vaping do exist, but they are contradicted by population data citing opposing trends in e-cigarette and cigarette use among youth in recent years, and do not confirm person-level positive associations with vaping and smoking.”

While accepting that American high school students have started using e-cigarettes more in recent years, Public Health England also reject the idea of a gateway from vaping to smoking.

Rather, they follow the evidence and argue that teenagers who vape also tend to be the sort of people who end up smoking cigarettes. They conclude: “the ‘common liability’ hypothesis seems a plausible explanation for the relationship between e-cigarettes and smoking implementation.”

Looking at the data on youth smoking and vaping rates, it’s not hard to see why they’ve arrived at this position:

Even in the implausible worst case scenario – where teenagers who would otherwise be non-smokers are tempted to regularly vape – policymakers have to acknowledge the far greater costs of an e-cig ban. While sensible efforts to prevent youth vaping are welcome, it would take 20 extra teens taking up vaping to negate the benefit of just one person using e-cigs to quit smoking.

So here’s my message to the anti-nicotine San Francisco politicians who think this approach is a good idea: banning a product that accomplishes your own aims more successfully than any serious tobacco control policy isn’t just stupid – it’s playing politics with people’s health and lives. People who want to quit smoking will die because of the ban, and their blood will be on your hands. 

Written by Daniel Pryor

Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute. He conducts original policy research and is also responsible for organizing the ASI’s events, as well as running the Institute's education programmes. His research interests include immigration, drug law reform, sex policy, and lifestyle freedom. He tweets as @DanielPryorr.