The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently banned all flavored tobacco products and called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to ban all e-cigarette and vaping products. “With mysterious lung illnesses and deaths on the rise, we have to educate our kids and do everything we can to tackle this crisis,” said Newsom in his executive order calling on the state to confront the “youth vaping epidemic.”
A recent wave of vaping-related illnesses is being blamed for over 1,400 lung injuries and 33 deaths across the country. But, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigation finds 77 percent of those patients report vaping tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. It’s quite clear that these vaping illnesses are actually a black-market THC phenomenon. Responding to these illnesses by banning vaping would only lead to more deaths.
Just as alcohol prohibition provoked thousands of alcohol-related poisonings when people were forced to seek liquor from bootleggers, a broad e-cigarette ban poses a grave risk to public health. Indeed, former Food and Drug Administration head Scott Gottlieb acknowledged in a CNBC interview: “It’s very difficult right now because there’s different problems: there’s the teen use of e-cigarettes and there’s these acute lung injuries. And if we conflate the two and we pull the legally sold e-cigarette products off the market, it’s going to increase the market for the illegal products.”
Pushing all vapor products to the black market would only exacerbate the problem. The CDC has attributed 33 deaths to this black market THC problem so far, but we must remember that conventional smoking kills about 480,000 people a year in the United States alone. Research in the peer-reviewed medical journal The BMJ shows that if every cigarette smoker switched to vaping, 6.6 million fewer current smokers would die premature deaths.
Thus the public health cost of banning vapor products is immense and would only worsen the problem it is intended to solve. Not only would vaping-related illnesses and deaths increase, but many previous smokers who have successfully switched to vaping could be driven to switch back to combustible cigarettes — which would increase California’s current unprecedented low smoking rate. “Fewer adults are smoking cigarettes than ever before,” the California Department of Public Health reported this year.
There are other, more effective actions California could pursue to prevent the types of vaping illnesses being seen across the country. To undercut and eliminate potentially dangerous THC products sold on the black market, California should lower its taxes on both THC and nicotine vaping products.
Public officials should be mindful that while sin taxes may serve as an effective mechanism to reduce use in some cases, when the taxes are too high many customers decide to take their chances with the illegal market. And the demand for street products incentivizes problems like the use of poisonous cutting agents and contaminants not found in legal products. Like everywhere else in the country, California had a thriving black market for marijuana before voters legalized cannabis sales in 2016. Now, with some of the highest marijuana taxes in the country driving up the price of legal marijuana, it’s no mystery that the black market continues to flourish in the state.
California should recognize these regulatory failures and shift to design policies and taxes that do a better job ensuring the safer and legal vaping and THC products are the ones that are most affordable and available to adults.
E-cigarettes may not be completely harmless and public officials have legitimate reasons to disincentivize vaping among teens under the age of 18. But a statewide vaping ban would disastrously force legal adult vapers to buy products on the dangerous black market, increase vaping-related deaths and drive up traditional cigarette smoking rates — all trade-offs state leaders should be unwilling to make.
A version of this column first appeared in the Orange County Register.