The Five Dumbest Product Bans

An Overview of Regulatory Absurdity

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Even as the array of consumer products available to the average American expands each day, a bewildering variety of government regulations serve to limit consumer choice. From the aircraft on which Americans fly to the food they buy in the grocery store, government regulation limits product choice at every turn.

There are different types of product bans. Some limits on product choice—bans on child pornography and personal possession of atomic weapons—have widespread popular support and appear wise by any standard. A great many more product bans are likely to remain subject to ongoing debate. For example, there are strong arguments for allowing the sale of meat that has not been government inspected and drugs not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Even if the costs of these regulations exceeds their benefits—and they well may—many still bring some benefits to society. But there is another type of ban—the kind that limits consumer choice but have no social benefit.

This paper focuses on five clearly absurd product bans that seem to serve no social good. While the selection obviously involves some degree of subjective judgment—no means exist to review every product ban in existence—the bans selected meet four criteria:

• No one can present a strong case for marginal social harm from the product or service banned. This does not necessarily mean that the product is harmless by all accounts, simply that the act of banning it without banning a much broader category of products has no social utility. For example, banning all alcohol would have some positive social effects—outweighed by the negative ones. Banning sangria simply restricts the availability of a type of beverage without doing anything to restrict the sale of alcohol or the negative consequences of drunk driving and alcoholism.

• The product should have utility to the general public. In other words, it should be something that almost anybody might have a theoretical interest in using. Some pig farmers complain of limitations placed on the drugs they can use on livestock, but these limitations have little relevance for those who do not raise pigs, so would not qualify.

• A government must have actually enforced the ban within the recent past. Many amusingly archaic laws remain on the books that are not enforced and are today a source of public amusement. Arizona, for example, bans the sale of imitation illegal drugs but no record exists of an attempt to enforce this law.

• The ban should, at least, exist at the state level. This paper does not deal with local laws, which allow for easier exit from their reach.

By necessities of space and brevity, many delightfully absurd product bans remain unexplored here. The five bans selected are:

Sangria (Virginia) . The Commonwealth of Virginia bans most preparations of the popular fortified wine drink (typically red wine with brandy and fruit) even though the state not only allows drinking of substances with the same alcoholic composition as Sangria and actually operates stores that sell all of the alcoholic ingredients needed to make Sangria.

Playing Online Poker in a Legal Casino (U. S.). Although 48 states have legal gambling in some form (and several run casinos), the federal government has made it illegal to place bets online—even in jurisdictions that allow almost all other types of gambling.

The Cardio-Pump (U. S.). No one has ever contended that anybody could do harm using this American-designed device intended to help resuscitate heart attack victims, which may actually help save lives. Although it has found wide use in other countries, the Food and Drug Administration bans its use in the United States.

Wildflower Bouquets (Louisiana). Louisiana’s unique-in-the nation florist licensing statute makes it illegal for anybody to arrange two or more types of flowers without passing a largely subjective state licensing exam. In theory, a child could face a fine for picking a bouquet of flowers and selling it at a roadside stand.

Feathers in provocative packaging (Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia). Ridiculously broad laws banning sexual toys in these states could serve to ban the sale of simple feathers if packaged with suggestions that they might be used for sexual purposes.