Why States Should Scrap Their Online E-cigarette Bans During Coronavirus Pandemic
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Why States Should Scrap Their Online E-cigarette Bans During Coronavirus Pandemic

Eliminating online sales bans would help keep vape shops in business and prevent unnecessary trips outside of the home, assisting with social distancing.

Millions of U.S. citizens are held up in their homes, trying their utmost to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The impact of COVID-19 is visible in every city and small town: empty bars, restaurants, and shopping malls. Aside from the occasional walk or trip to the grocery store, most who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home are doing so. Delivery drivers, truckers, and garbage workers find themselves in a position of critical importance in combating the most significant public health crisis in living memory.

At this point, we have no idea how long people will be asked to observe social distancing or what other measures may be necessary to save lives and prevent the country’s health care infrastructure from being overwhelmed. Federal and state authorities are scrapping rules and regulations that impede social distancing or limit the health care sector’s ability to respond to the crisis effectively.

Doctors may now practice across state lines. Texas ditched state laws that prohibit trucks from the alcohol industry from delivering supplies to grocery stores. The Transportation Security Administration is allowing hand sanitizer containers up to 12 ounces. New York is allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to-go, and Alabama is allowing booze sales curbside at licensed businesses. In the same vein, Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order allowing bars and restaurants to offer drinks for carryout or delivery.

Authorities realize just how much they are asking of people when they advise social distancing for weeks or possibly months. Relaxing rules on alcohol sales is a pragmatic move, recognizing that for many, a drink at the end of the day can serve as a small respite from a world in chaos. If people can’t have their alcohol delivered, they will make more unnecessary trips to the store, raising the risk of coming into contact with the virus.

Such pragmatism must be extended to e-cigarettes. States such as Utah and Vermont ban online e-cigarette sales. The logic of the bans was shaky at best, with supporters claiming the bans would limit youth vaping. It’s a strange claim, as the market leader, Juul, has some of the strictest age-verification processes around. It also discriminates against those who may not have easy access to a vape shop but do have easy access to cigarettes.

But amid the outbreak of a highly contagious respiratory disease, online bans are even more counterproductive. Although the evidence is not clear on whether smoking raises the risk of the coronavirus, it’s a good idea for smokers who can’t quit or vapers who may relapse to have access to a dramatically safer product.

Italy, which so far has been hardest hit by the pandemic, reopened its vape shops, making them one of the few essential businesses allowed to continue operations, with France quickly following suit.

As to whether vaping nicotine can increase your risk of harm from the coronavirus, the scientist who persuaded the Italian government to reopen vape shops said in an interview with the harm-reduction publication Filter“There is no evidence for that. That is just a game that is trying to create a new hysteria.”

Scrapping online sales bans would help keep vape shops in business and prevent unnecessary trips outside of the home, assisting with social distancing and preventing former smokers who use e-cigarettes from relapsing back to smoking. The kinds of e-liquids and devices found in vape shops are not available at your local 7-11 or grocery store. Vapers who want to stay away from cigarettes will have to shell out for new devices or go back to smoking.

As people become more isolated from the outside world, daily life changes, and so too can people’s perspective. Most adult smokers say they want to quit smoking, but very few are successful in doing so. E-cigarettes have helped millions of people who may never have otherwise given up smoking quit their habit once and for all. Being primarily confined to the home, especially with children, may give smokers fresh impetus to try something different, to switch away from harmful combustible tobacco to vaping.

As the actions of governors around the country have shown, measures large and small may be needed to help protect public health. If you can limit the spread of the coronavirus and get people to quit smoking cigarettes at the same time, that’s a public health measure everyone should get on board with.

A version of this column previously appeared in the Washington Examiner. 

Guy Bentley is the director of consumer freedom research at Reason Foundation. Bentley's research focuses on the taxation and regulation of nicotine, tobacco, alcohol, and food.