- All panics begin with a rational fear that quickly turns dangerously irrational. The bans on legal nicotine vaping products in the US is an example of such a panic.
- It doesn’t seem to matter that nearly all of the vaping-related illnesses have reportedly been tied to black market THC vaping products, and that the CDC hasn’t been able to identify a single legitimate nicotine vaping product to warn the public to avoid.
- Vaping is simply a game-changer when it comes to helping to end a true epidemic, which is tobacco-related illness.
- But it’s being emotionally, unscientifically conflated with illegal, unregulated THC vapes. The two have nothing in common besides the delivery device.
- Science is no match for the wisdom of a panic. And the panic is, distressingly, bipartisan.
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All panics begin with a rational fear that quickly turns dangerously irrational.
A threat is identified. The danger posed by the threat is amplified by speculation. Worst case scenarios are obsessed about, and action is demanded. Discussion of unseen consequences are discouraged. Skepticism of the threat is met with suspicion or anger.
The current panic over a spate of lung illnesses attributed to vaping usage checks all these boxes.
As of early October, 1,299 lung injuries and 28 deaths have been attributed at least in part to vaping or e-cigarette usage, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In response, city and state governments have issued sweeping bans on sales of everything from flavored vapes to any form of e-cigarettes.
Even the regulation-averse Trump administration has gotten in on the mass fury, announcing plans for a federal ban on flavored vaping products, ostensibly to protect teenagers from getting hooked. Because after all, no one over the age of 18 likes flavors.
It doesn’t seem to matter to any of these public servants that nearly all of the vaping-related illnesses have reportedly been tied to black market THC vaping products, and that the CDC hasn’t been able to identify a single legitimate nicotine vaping product to warn the public to avoid.
The fact that prohibition of marijuana directly lead to the creation and sale of unregulated black market THC vapes, which are the most directly responsible for the vast preponderance of vaping illnesses, is barely considered.
Even if the disastrous and failed ban on marijuana — itself the result of a mass moral panic — caused the vaping crisis, the conventional wisdom holds that surely the solution must be more sweeping bans.
Science takes a backseat in a panic
CDC data from last year showed about 11 million people in the US use nicotine vaping products, with fewer than 1,300 reported illnesses related to vaping.
Contrast that with tobacco — a legal and regulated product — which is responsible for over 480,000 deaths a year, or about 1,300 deaths every single day. If those numbers aren’t staggering enough, the CDC says “more than 16 million Americans are living with a disease caused by smoking.”
While widespread nicotine vaping is only a decade old and there is plenty yet to be learned about its long-term effects, the emerging scientific consensus is that vaping safer than smoking by magnitudes, and it has been the most effective alternative for nicotine addicts looking to quit smoking.
Vaping is simply a game-changer when it comes to helping to end a true epidemic, which is tobacco-related illness. But it’s being emotionally, unscientifically conflated with illegal, unregulated THC vapes. The two have nothing in common besides the delivery device.
But science is no match for the wisdom of a panic.
Outspoken Democratic freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan has asserted that vaping is “killing our people” and rejected the idea of even researching the subject, saying, “We don’t need more studies. We already know the truth here.”
The panic, distressingly, is bipartisan.
Last month, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts instituted a blanket four-month ban on all vaping products, defending his decision to ban legal, regulated vapes by saying, “E-cigarette usage is exploding and it’s clear there’s a very real danger to the population.”
Contrast the response in the US to the reactions across the pond in the UK, where scientists think we’ve all lost our minds.
“Complete madness” is how Dr. John Britton of the UK Center for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies describes the US reaction to the relatively minor outbreak of vaping-related illnesses. Britton adds, “if you tell people to stop vaping, they will go back to tobacco and tobacco kills.”
Even the government in the UK has taken a more sober-minded approach. Public Health England, a British government agency that operates in a similar space as the CDC, issued a report stating vaping is approximately 95% safer than smoking.
One prominent anti-tobacco advocate in the UK called the resistance to such research part of a “consistent effort to create moral panic around vaping,” another UK advocate has pushed for vapes to be provided free to smokers as part of the country’s socialized healthcare system.
Action is demanded, but bans have consequences
When ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, one of his first initiatives was ridding the city’s bars and restaurants of second-hand smoke. Despite substantial pushback, the move proved successful. Smoking was further relegated to the fringes of polite society, fewer people smoked, and the hospitality industry didn’t collapse.
Bloomberg’s anti-smoking campaign didn’t end there, however. He levied punitive taxes on cigarettes, which opened the door to a black market for cigarettes trafficked from mostly-Southern low-tax states into cities like New York. According to Crain’s, over half of the cigarettes sold in New York last year were smuggled from out of state.
One of those smugglers was named Eric Garner, whose “loosie” business became the target of an NYPD crackdown, which ultimately led to the confrontation where he was killed on a Staten Island sidewalk, screaming “I can’t breathe” after Officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in an illegal chokehold.
Just this week, Garner’s mother and murdered teenager Trayvon Martin’s mother sent a letter to the New York City Council, cautioning against their proposed ban on menthol cigarettes.
The letter read in part: “We have seen the casualties of bad policies that have created unfortunate encounters with law enforcement … When you ban a product sold mostly in black communities, you must consider the reality of what will happen to that very same over-represented community in the criminal justice system.”
A leap of imagination is not necessary to imagine a violent police encounter over the street sale of illicit vapes. Nor is it out of the realm of possibility that a ban on legitimate vapes will lead to even more vaping injuries, as there is almost no evidence that legal vaping is a cause of the current epidemic.
Prohibition doesn’t work. It leads to violence, stigmatization, crime, and worsens public health.
Being suspicious of Big Vape’s motives is perfectly reasonable, as it would be of any big business. Regulating their businesses, and their efforts to market to children, is a worthwhile action.
But if vaping technology is stamped out all together because of emotional and unscientific reactions, the big winners are the black market and Big Tobacco.