Don't Make The Vaping "Crisis" Worse With Hasty New Regulations
Vaping-related illness and deaths continue to be big news. As of Friday, September 27, 2019, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported that there have been “805 lung injury cases reported from 46 states and 1 U.S. territory” as well as 12 confirmed deaths.
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The Trump administration has announced plans to ban “all non-tobacco flavors of e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol” and numerous lawmakers are urging the federal government to take even stronger action in banning vaping products. The FDA’s stated goal is that “all current flavored e-cigarettes — except tobacco — will be removed from the market” pending further regulatory review.
Governors are also acting at the state level. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has decreed a 4- month ban on sales of all vaping products in the state. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo similarly issued an executive order banning the sale of flavored e-cigarette products in her state. So has Washington state Governor Jay Inslee.
However in the rush to enact new restrictions, it may be worth asking whether lawmakers and regulators are targeting the correct problem.
For example, the CDC statement notes that, “The latest findings from the investigation into lung injuries associated with e-cigarette use, or vaping, suggest products containing THC play a role in the outbreak.” (The CDC also states that, “The specific chemical exposure(s) causing lung injuries associated with e-cigarette product use, or vaping, remains unknown at this time.”)
Michelle Minton, a Senior Fellow and policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute argues that regulators are attacking the wrong target. Regarding the recent illnesses and deaths, she notes:
[W]hat few of these reports have pointed out is that it seems most — if not all — of the hospitalizations were related, not to e-cigarettes, but illicit “street vapes.” If e-cigarettes are banned or restricted we can expect to see more stories like this as people increasingly turn to the black market.
Minton also argues that over-zealous regulations are a source of the problem, rather than a cure:
[T]he only reason these people turned to the black market was because they couldn’t acquire cannabis or e-cigarettes legally. Black markets only arise when products are unavailable or prohibitively expensive on the legal market, often as a result of well-meaning efforts to protect people from their own choices. But instead of keeping them away from substances that might increase their risks a little, restrictions push people into the illicit market where adulterated and defective products can kill them.
As Minton notes, Prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol. But it did boost the black market for tainted bootleg liquor.
Science writer and journalist Bruce Barcott makes a similar point:
I’m no fan of flavored vaping; I don’t appreciate walking through your strawberry-kiwi cloud, thanks. But outlawing them as a response to a lung disease connected largely to black-market THC vape cartridges makes no sense.
As a physician, I feel for every patient and family affected by vaping-related illness.
As an American, I also want to protect basic individual liberties. Hasty legislation and regulations issued in a response to a crisis rarely makes for good public policy. New restrictions may paradoxically worsen the problem of illness caused by black-market products, rather than help.
When it comes to vaping regulations, perhaps our politicians all need to slow down and (literally!) take a deep breath before they act.