Staff Columnist

Overregulating vapes will cause more injuries, not fewer

Neo-prohibitionists are intent on creating a dangerous black market

A woman exhales vapor from an electronic cigarette at The Vapor Spot vapor bar in Los Angeles, California March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
A woman exhales vapor from an electronic cigarette at The Vapor Spot vapor bar in Los Angeles, California March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

It’s been more than more than 80 years since the ratification of the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending abysmal failure of alcohol prohibition. Some Americans still haven’t learned the lessons that era offers.

Last week, the CDC reported nearly 200 cases of potential vaping-related injuries in 22 states, including one fatality in Illinois. At least four cases have been reported to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Understandably, that has made public health officials even more uneasy about the growing use of vapor products. But policymakers must seek evidence-based solutions, not resort to knee-jerk reactions.

History is clear that prohibition leads to organized crime and riskier substance use.

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Details are still coming out about the recent rash of vape injuries. Most of the cases we know about so far involve THC e-liquids, rather than nicotine e-cigarettes, and many were purchased from street dealers, rather than retail sellers.

Ignoring that, news reports of vape-related illness have emboldened the anti-e-cigarette lobby.

The neo-prohibitionists are not interested in educating people about safer consumption or focusing prevention efforts on minors alone, which are both admirable causes. Instead, many want to make it difficult or impossible for adults to obtain safer nicotine alternatives.

CDC Director Robert R. Redfield has been criticized for singling out e-cigarettes in his statement responding to the first vape-related death, but failing to mention the fact that illegal products are more dangerous than legal ones.

Some advocacy groups are calling for an outright ban on e-cigarettes, including the Juul-brand products that are relatively popular among young people. Next year, San Francisco will become the first major U.S. city to prohibit sales of e-cigarettes, but traditional tobacco products will remain legal.

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After San Francisco approved the ban, a Juul spokesman noted in a statement that the policy would “create a thriving black market instead of addressing the actual causes of underage access and use.”

History is clear that prohibition leads to organized crime and riskier substance use. Restricting access to certain substances forces consumers onto the black market, where sellers are less accountable.

To be clear, vaping is bad for your health! People without a nicotine dependency should not start consuming nicotine.

Nevertheless, there are less-bad ways to consume nicotine. Cigarette smoking is responsible for nearly 500,000 deaths per year, according to the federal government.

By comparison, e-cigarettes are only definitively linked to a handful of American deaths, due to devices malfunctioning and exploding. Even if some of the recent lung disease cases turn out to be related to e-cigarettes, they will not be nearly as deadly as combustible cigarettes.

The fact is, some people choose to consume harmful substances. We can pursue policies that lead more of them to suffer, or fewer.

The anti-vape movement is a disturbing trend at a time when policymakers have begun to recognize the destruction prohibition reaps on public health, social justice and the economy. There is unprecedented interest in decriminalizing drugs, promoting safer use and even expunging past criminal charges.

As soon as you mention nicotine, however, those harm reduction principles so many have embraced disappear from the conversation.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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