Two Old Guys Reveal They Know Nothing About Vaping

Voters asked Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden about vapes last weekend. They didn't seem to know what they were talking about.
Biden and Sanders respond to the vaping crisis.
Photo by Win McNamee/Staff

Over the weekend, voters asked Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden how they'd handle the vaping crisis as president. They were rare questions—ones that nearly all the Democratic contenders have yet to address. And though the two frontrunners clearly differ on a range of issues, their remarks here were similar: All vape products should be removed from the market.

At a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Biden reportedly said on Saturday that there has to be "serious scientific data as to whether or not it has the kind of long-term damage on the lungs and it causes death before we allow it to be sold." The following day, he came down even stronger, revealing he would eliminate the industry entirely if he determined vaping nicotine to be harmful.


Meanwhile, when asked about vaping in his home state of Vermont on Saturday, Sanders initially sounded confused, responding to a college student about the dropout rate before he realized he was answering a question that had not been asked. He then said that "the evidence seems to indicate that vaping is not so good for your health," before adding that "when you have products that are not good for your health, I think you've got to tell that industry that they cannot produce a product which is making our kids sick."

A campaign staffer later clarified that's not what Sanders meant—that he would, instead, study the topic more until he found the most appropriate course of action and regulation, according to Politico.

The next president, whether it's Trump again or one of his Democratic challengers, will of course have a host of problems to deal with, and proponents of vaping as a harm-reduction tool acknowledge that their passion can sometimes get lost in the mix. But that's no excuse not to learn about it either, particularly as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have to officially decide which products can stay on the market in May.

"While there are many big issues in the news right now, the Democratic candidates should at least try to learn a bit about the vaping issue because it's clear the media will be asking them questions," said Matt Culley, a popular YouTuber, vaper, and advocate.


The most generous way you could take Sanders's comment is that he somehow misspoke. But in an atmosphere where vaping narratives have often been conflated—the primary culprit for the vape illnesses that have cropped up around the country over the past few months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a thickening agent sometimes used in illicit THC cartridges and not e-liquids containing nicotine—it's even more important to get the facts straight the first time. Especially as other prominent Democrats, like Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, have called for more aggressive tactics and harsher restrictions.

Along with Andrew Yang, neither Biden nor Sanders appeared to have intimate knowledge of why people have been getting sick, and they made no mention to the nuances of the whole ordeal. Like the fact that while e-cigarette use among teenagers has risen significantly in the past two years, harm-reduction experts and major public-health scholars have noted that complete prohibition rarely works, and that vaping has lifesaving potential for adults looking to ditch the deadly habit of combustible cigarettes. (The only Democrat running with even a vague vaping policy is Elizabeth Warren.)

"In general, this seems to be a result of asymmetric information," said David Sweanor, an adjunct professor in the law department at the University of Ottawa and an expert in the global tobacco industry. "There is an overwhelming focus on the risks of new technology rather than seeing any benefits, or even thinking of how things might be turned to an advantage."

The subject was likely weighing on these voters' minds, too, and will be in the months leading up to the election: Days earlier, the Trump administration—after floundering for months on how to tackle skyrocketing youth use of e-cigaretteshad decided to temporarily ban the sale of almost all flavored, pod-based vaping products, until approved by the FDA. In contrast to these Democrats, Trump displayed a rare moment of caution with a seemingly thought-out process; he shifted his thinking from the full-blown flavor ban he teased in September to a more measured compromise between adult vaping advocates and concerned parents who have longed to take down the vape giant JUUL.

"Biden and Sanders are just like Trump circa September 11 [when he initially announced that flavored vaping products should be banned], except they both ignored the past five months where we learned that tainted THC carts are what got people sick and not nicotine," said Paul Blair, the director of strategic initiatives at the conservative-leaning Americans for Tax Reform. "They also have no concern for the jobs created by the legal market either."

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