After news broke about a serious and sometimes deadly outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, my colleagues who work in the harm-reduction field — i.e., health activists who argue that smokers ought to reduce their potential harm by switching to less-deadly alternatives — called on health officials to figure out what’s going on before issuing bans or edicts.
To their credit, many state health agencies, including (and surprisingly) those in California, took a measured and generally scientific approach to the matter. They sometimes passed emergency regulations temporarily limiting the sale of vape products, but they mostly issued warnings. As more evidence has emerged about the nature of the illnesses, that approach has turned out to be a wise one.
But anti-vaping activists and politicians still seem stuck in their ban-happy ways even as information from the Centers for Disease Control confirms that the epidemic likely has nothing whatsoever to do with legal nicotine-vaping products. In fact, the culprit appears to be black-market vaping products used to inhale THC-containing substances. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that provides cannabis with its sought-after high.
“U.S. and state health officials have traced the illness to vaping, mostly THC, and so far have identified vitamin E oil as a likely culprit,” according to a CNBC report. Vitamin E acetate is an additive used in those oils. CNBC quoted one pulmonologist saying, “It may turn out there are only two kinds of people who get this disease: those who vape THC and those who won’t admit it.” The article focused on the reluctance of some of this disease’s victims to admit that they were using a THC-related substance, given that cannabis still is illegal in most states.
None of this has any apparent connection to legally available nicotine vaping products. Yet that hasn’t stopped the health nannies. “The recent lung illness outbreak has alarmed physicians and the broader health community and shined a light on the fact that we have very little evidence about the short- and long-term health consequences of e-cigarettes and vaping products,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the influential American Medical Association, in an official statement released this week — even after CDC released its latest information.
The group called for a federal ban on all vaping products that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a tobacco-cessation product. Given that the bureaucratic FDA has yet to approve any such devices, that would essentially mean a nationwide ban on vaping. That’s bad for public health, given the opportunities that e-cigarettes offer for smokers who are trying to kick their unhealthy habit. But it’s also likely to increase the kind of black-market-related illnesses we’re now seeing for some fairly obvious reasons.
If the government bans commercial vaping products, then more people will turn to the black market or homemade concoctions. And, remember, that awful lung disease appears tied to black-market products. “As more states, cities and even the federal government consider banning flavored nicotine, thousands of do-it-yourself vapers … are flocking to social media groups and websites to learn how to make e-liquids at home,” according to a CNN Health report this month. If the thought of the growing incidence of teen vaping upsets health officials, then what about the thought of vaping among those who make their own potions based on an internet recipe? Even I find that a bit scary.
“Who knows what they’re going to put in there?,” said one doctor quoted by CNN. “This is just what happens when you use prohibition as a regulatory approach. What’s really needed in this situation is actual regulation of these products to try to make them as safe as possible.” Why yes, but someone please explain that to the AMA and ban-happy politicians about the end results of their preferred policies. Their approach is the equivalent of restricting the sale of commercially sold beer, wine, and spirits because people have gotten sick from backyard moonshine. It’s basically insane.
So is the other common approach these days — banning the sale of flavored nicotine products. Those rules are targeted at vapers and also at African-American smokers, who often prefer menthol cigarettes. Instead of allowing a popular avenue for quitting, government officials are trying to protect people from themselves by taking away the products they like (or are addicted to). And for people who don’t go cold turkey, police will gladly arrest scofflaws selling “loosies” (loose cigarettes) in inner-city neighborhoods or making their own vape brews at home.
Virtually all vaping liquids are flavored, and flavors are one reason that many former smokers are drawn to them. Banning flavors is just an alternate way of banning the sale of most types of e-cigarettes. Yet nearly 500,000 people die in the United States every year from tobacco-related ailments, mainly from combustible cigarettes. There’s some legitimate concern about non-smoking teens who start to vape — but any vaping rules need to keep in mind the potential health benefits of providing a relatively safe alternative for smokers.
The lessons of Prohibition have been widely known for a century. After the sale of alcoholic beverages was outlawed in 1920, people continued to drink, but the industry went underground. Drinkers were poisoned from poorly made hooch. Organized crime flourished. Obviously, black marketers don’t follow rules and regulations.
If you restrict the sale of legal and safe vaping products, more people will reach for illegal and unsafe ones. Many of them will get sick in the process. Too many politicians and health officials simply are using this serious public-health crisis to advance policies that they already have embraced — namely, stamping out the vape industry. Sadly, I don’t imagine any new evidence will sway them.
Steven Greenhut is the Sacramento-based Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.