How Could We Have Known: Prohibiting E-cigarettes Leads to Smuggling and Smoking

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Anyone with a passing knowledge of American history is aware of the failures of prohibition. Both the now-repealed ban on alcohol and the ongoing “war on drugs” did little to reduce demand for substances, instead pushing people toward more dangerous behaviors, fueling illicit markets and drug cartels, and putting otherwise law-abiding citizens in conflict (sometimes fatal) with law enforcement.

Yet, we never seem to learn. Though they avoid the word “prohibition,” those in power continue to present bans as the solution to all manner of social issues. Most recently, the approach has been pursued as the remedy for youth e-cigarette use. But, as we are already beginning to see, this new prohibition will be no more successful than those that came before.  

Government-funded propaganda, junk science, Michael Bloomberg-funded advocacy, and lazy journalism have fomented a moral panic over vaping in America. That panic has provided a golden opportunity for politicians to boost their reputation by appearing to “do something” about the supposed problem. And, rather than taking the time to understand the real risks, the complexities of why people use the products, its trade-offs, or the unintended consequences of bans, the “do somethings” pushed for prohibition, with cities, states, and entire nations banning flavored e-cigarettes or vaping entirely.

Despite rhetoric about trusting science, anti-vaping advocates in and outside of government have shown little interest in what the science on e-cigarettes actually says. Contrary to repeated assertions that the products “haven’t been around long enough to be studied deeply,” there is more than a decade of research that indicates that:

This evidence, along with the experience with prohibition, indicates that banning e-cigarettes would do more harm than good. But lawmakers have heeded neither this evidence nor the testimony of countless experts. It should come as no surprise that where e-cigarettes have been restricted, smuggling is increasing, the illicit market for these products is growing, and cigarette smoking is going up.    

Just last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that officers at the Port of Lehigh Valley in Allentown, Pennsylvania, seized more than 86,000 of illegal “flavored vaping products” from China worth nearly $2 million. And this isn’t the first indication of a growing illicit vaping market. Knockoff Juul pods (also from China) have been appearing on store shelves since the company—in response to government pressure—removed its flavored pods from the market in early 2019. In states with bans on flavored vaping, stories continue to surface about people selling flavored e-cigarettes and e-liquids out of the trunks of their cars. This should worry lawmakers because whatever risks they might believe e-cigarettes pose to health, the risks are greater when people are forced to buy products underground.

Unlike licensed, regulated vape shops and producers, illicit vendors don’t care about verifying customers’ age. Consumers have little assurance about who is making the products, if they’re complying with safe manufacturing processes, or even of the contents of what they’re buying. And, as we saw recently, if something goes wrong in the illicit market, it is much harder to track or remove dangerous products and hold those responsible accountable. 

In the summer of 2019 nearly 3,000 people were hospitalized and over 30 died after vaping illicit THC products. Though it was initially painted as “vaping-related,” it quickly became clear that the lung injuries were primarily linked to bootlegged cannabis vapes that had been adulterated with toxic vitamin E acetate. Some anti-vaping advocates continue to blame the outbreak on “e-cigarettes,” but not a single nicotine vaping product has been associated with this or any other outbreak of tainted vaping products. This is largely because, unlike with cannabis, adults who wish to vape nicotine can still obtain the products they want with relative ease and at affordable prices from licensed, regulated vendors. If cities, states, or the federal government expand prohibitions on e-cigarettes, this may soon change.

Two things should be clear by now: Bans do not eliminate demand, and criminals worldwide are willing and capable of supplying that demand. Of course, not every e-cigarette user wants to take the risk of buying vapes illegally. Some will return to smoking instead. In fact, in places like San Francisco and Nova Scotia, which banned flavored e-cigarettes in 2018 and 2019, respectively, that is already happening. Even if there is not a dramatic rise in smoking, restricting, heavily taxing, and banning e-cigarettes appears to slow declines in smoking, as Australia, which functionally prohibits nicotine vapor products, recently discovered.

It is hard to say which outcome is worse: scores of people turning to dodgy drug dealers or more people smoking. But what is painfully obvious is that neither outcome is beneficial for public health. So, perhaps lawmakers should stop passing knee-jerk regulations that look good or feel good and start making decisions that actually do good. That will only happen if members of government stop ignoring the evidence and the history and think long and hard about the real-world consequences of their actions.