New York and Michigan have recently banned flavored e-cigarettes, and there is a bill gaining support in Congress to ban them nationwide. At the same time, India has banned all e-cigarette products and China has stopped Juul nicotine vaporizer sales. While many think these efforts will protect young people from the dangers of a new generation of nicotine addicts, I, as an 18-year-old, don’t see things that way.
Like the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, criminalizing these increasingly popular products will not curb their use. Instead, it will make them more expensive to obtain, more dangerous and less reliable to use. These products should be regulated so consumers know what they’re smoking, but the ban means that young people will not have reliable access to information about what they’re consuming when they inevitably turn to unregulated, black-market products.
As an economics student at Binghamton University, I’ve been learning about what the government must provide to ensure that safe and reliable trade can occur. When the exchange of legal goods occurs, the government establishes property rights, maintains law and order and enforces contracts. With an e-cigarette ban, the government will not be able to ensure a safe exchange of these unhealthy products and will likely incarcerate dealers and users. As we’ve seen from the thousands of minorities imprisoned for minor drug charges, these nonviolent crimes will put otherwise good people in prison for seeking out a product they want to use recreationally.
By contrast, when the use and sale of e-cigarettes is legal, the government will be able to protect consumers from bad suppliers and protect suppliers from unsafe consumers. If e-cigarettes are criminalized, young people will resort to getting their products in the same way they’ve resorted to obtaining other illegal drugs — from drug dealers with inflated prices and unreliable quality.
This will lead to more, not fewer, instances of hospitalization from tainted e-cigarette products and a new unnecessary drug crisis, all while solutions better than criminalization are available. This will greatly affect BU students who vape, as it will be harder for them to obtain quality products at reliable prices. This may result in a rise in the black-market sale of vaping products from dangerous suppliers who couldn’t care less about the product they’re selling. Legal distributors have much greater incentive to provide a safe product to buyers, as tainted products would lead to lawsuits, and payment issues would be resolved through legal means instead of through violence.
When more than 480,000 people die from smoking those original tobacco cigarettes per year and about 88,000 die from alcohol-related deaths annually, it seems absurd that we are so quick to criminalize a product that has led to just 35 deaths so far, most stemming from THC products tainted by the cutting agent vitamin E acetate. These few deaths and numerous hospitalizations can be reduced not with a ban, further distorting the contents of illegally purchased e-cigarette products, but with safer, better-regulated products and rehabilitation programs for those with addictions.
We should treat e-cigarettes less like heroin and more like alcohol or paper cigarettes. We should raise taxes on sales of the products and allow for a reliable and safe way of obtaining these vices for those who demand them. Criminalizing e-cigarettes won’t curb their demand, but it will ensure that they’re supplied exclusively by drug dealers and cartels, making it much harder for consumers to freely and safely vape.
Adam Malev is a freshman majoring in economics.