Vaping: Regulation versus Prohibition

Between 1920 and 1933, a small but very vocal group of people decided that they should deny their fellow Americans the right to enjoy a beer. With an argument based more in a narrow religious and social view than actual science, Prohibitionists pressured legislators, and the 18th amendment became the law of the land. It was an overwhelming failure.

In an unprecedented move, the city of San Francisco, otherwise a liberal enclave known for an “anything goes” environment, similarly followed a small but very vocal group of people which decided they should deny their fellow Americans the right to vape. Amidst San Francisco’s heavy cloud of legal pot smoke, modern-day Carry Nations have waged war against vaping hipsters and those who would sell to them in the nation’s first all-out Prohibition of an otherwise legal product.

The danger of Prohibition

During the 1920s era of Prohibition of alcohol, we saw that people were unwilling to give it up, and liquor was easy to find. But much of that liquor was tainted, and widely available “bathtub gin” and other concoctions made from low-quality ingredients and industrial alcohol resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. The crime associated with bootleg liquor caused even more widespread death and destruction.

While we may not see zoot-suited gangsters roaming the streets of San Francisco peddling bootleg e-cigarettes and shooting up their competitors, there is still a noteworthy danger involved in San Francisco’s Prohibition. That would be the obvious danger that people will turn to something more dangerous to vaping, and that is smoking combustible cigarettes.

Vaping is widely recognized by unbiased scientific authorities as substantially less harmful than smoking, and it is often touted as a legitimate and workable smoking cessation tool. It is very likely that without access to vaping, the incidence of smoking will rise and the public health risk will increase, not decrease under vaping Prohibition.

An argument for regulation, not Prohibition

Nobody is making an argument that vaping should be completely unregulated, and certainly the sale to minors should be, and is, prohibited. In addition to preventing the sale to minors, most reasonable people would also argue that packaging, labeling and quality control regulations should also be in place, much as they are with combustible cigarettes.

The FDA’s “premarket review” is one such measure to ensure quality. And certainly the major manufacturers and sellers of e-cigarettes and vaping liquids have the wherewithal to navigate such a process – although such a mandate is likely to hit smaller, independent shops which mix their own liquids in-house. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, in a recent op/ed in the Wall Street Journal, proposed a common-sense solution, which would allow smaller shops to band together to file for a common application for market approval, so long as they follow the same manufacturing process.

The vaping industry itself has taken several steps to prevent sales to minors. Already, sales of e-cigarettes are age-restricted, and the FDA has put in place even more regulations that require shops to sell flavored liquids in a separate area of the store. The industry, in response to the threat of bans and in the face of ill-conceived Prohibition currently in place in San Francisco, is eager to cooperate with governing agencies to put strict regulation and age controls in place. One of the largest online vendors of vaping equipment and liquids, Vapor Authority, has joined with several other online vendors to not only comply with regulations but exceed them in implementing strict, third-party age verification systems.

San Francisco’s ill-conceived ban will almost certainly be a dismal failure, disproportionately harming small businesses and neighborhood bodegas. Further, the ban will place what has become arguably the best smoking cessation device on the market firmly out of reach, resulting in a population that is even more addicted to tobacco and suffering the health hazards which result from the carcinogens and toxins which are found in tobacco smoke.

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