The central point of agreement that all reasonable people share is that minors should not have access to products containing nicotine. While some of us may disagree on the best methods of keeping nicotine products out of the hands of minors, that single unifying goal can and should be our guiding principle for action. Whatever we do, it should be with the end result in mind of making certain minors can’t get nicotine products.
Hanging over all of this is an issue of timing: the summer of 2019 witnessed multiple cases of vaping-related lung damage; initial media reports caused people to blame vaping in general, but subsequent reports, when the facts were actually in, linked the illnesses to black-market THC vape cartridges and back-alley vape juice. The damage in the consciousness of many was done, though: vaping was now perceived as dangerous, and it didn’t take much effort to tie this - intentionally or otherwise - to the issue of teen vaping.
Some people, rightly concerned at the growth of teen vaping, have put forth flavor bans as the best means of restricting youth access to vaping products. Their argument is that flavors not only attract children, but are designed to attract children, and that offering only tobacco flavors will reduce youth vaping. If we take flavor ban proponents at their word - and not everyone does - their goal is to reduce youth vaping by eliminating vape juice flavors that taste good.
While we wholeheartedly agree with their stated goal, we part ways on believing that a ban on flavors is the best way to go about that. A flavor ban won’t prevent children from using nicotine, but it will damage a healthy domestic industry, it will produce a black market of illicit, “bathtub” vape juice, and it will do all of this while reducing the freedoms of millions of adult vapers. Worse, a better situation is available, and it’s not being pursued with nearly enough vigor.
A Flavor Ban Won’t Save the Children
Nicotine use amongst teens is nothing new, and it’s actually at a laudable all-time low. Education has reduced youth smoking rates drastically. The rate of 12th-graders who smoke daily has declined from a recent peak of 24.6 percent in 1997 to a low of 3.6 percent in 2018. This is fantastic progress on a long-running problem, but it reminds us: nicotine doesn’t need to taste good for teens to use it! Rates of teen smoking didn’t decline because someone made cigarettes taste less good, it declined because we worked harder to restrict access, and we increased our educational efforts to teach kids about the harms of smoking.
Vaping is new, though, and perceived - rightly or not - as a more healthy alternative. It’s not a part of the education, and not subject to all of the same access restrictions. And, of course, it’s “cool”. When you look at the reasons kids are vaping - they haven’t been taught not to; vaping is considered cool by their peers; vape products are accessible to them - a flavor ban isn’t going to address any of these issues.
Let’s also dispense, once and for all, with the idea that vape juice flavors are specifically designed to attract children. We’ll talk more, later, about how kids aren’t the only people who enjoy candy, but for now, let’s talk about vape flavorists. I’ve worked with flavorists, talented masters of their art, people whose goal is simply to make something that tastes good. To say that these good, honorable people are sitting at their desks every day, steepling their fingers and saying, “How can I entrap children with my elixirs today?” is absurd and insulting. These are people, remember, actual human beings with consciences and families. There’s no doubt that there are some bad actors in this industry, and they absolutely deserve to be run out of business and criminally prosecuted, but it would be unfair in the extreme to destroy an entire industry for a few bad actors.
Crippling an Industry for Misguided Reasons
The vape industry in the United States is unique. It’s very new, very underground. This was a culture built on DIY, built on the little guy, built on average people who wanted a better alternative to smoking. As a result, a lot of the people who economically benefit the most from vaping aren’t massive megacorporations or Big Industry: a lot of them are mom-and-pop, just people, just a person with a dream and a taste for what people like. This is a home entrepreneur business, grown from the ground up.
More than 80 percent of the sales of vape juice are non-tobacco flavors. Take that away and the damage you do economically is incalculable. And not of big companies, massive corporations who can absorb the loss: these are families, working families like yours, who rely on this industry to feed their children. (Like mine!) Vaping offers an alternative to smoking, and supports billions of dollars of growth in the market; is that really something we want to stifle?
And in fact, isn’t the legitimate, established, tested, rigorous professional market precisely what you want to encourage? Because if you remove the professionals with their cleanrooms, what you get is the black market with their bathtubs.
The Rise of the Bathtub Vape Juice
The undercurrent to the recent tack toward flavor bans has been the rise in vape-related illnesses, some of which have tragically resulted in deaths. But these illnesses have been traced not to established, professional vape juice (much less to consumption by minors), but rather to black-market THC vape cartridges and underground vape juice. And thus again we find that the problem (illicit vape juice causing illnesses) is not fixed by the proposed solution (a flavor ban that damages the legitimate industry).
In fact, that damage to the professional industry will lead to an increase in illicit production, as people who still want to vape something they enjoy more than tobacco turn to the black market. This is only going to lead to more illness, more death. The professional market, again, is what we want to protect, while keeping its product out of the hands of minors.
A bathtub producer isn’t as likely to card his customers as a vape shop, either, so by increasing the black market, you’ve just given teens an easier route to getting their hands on vape juice. Again, the solution undermines the goal, rather than achieving it!
Everyone Loves Baked Goods
There’s a strange logical fallacy displayed over and over in legislative conversations about this issue, and the bizarre conclusion it seems to reach is that adults don’t like cookies. As a quick trip around your office (or my house) will attest, this is emphatically not the case! Everyone likes things that taste good, and, with all credit to Mister-E-Liquid’s Signature Tobacco line - some of which are actually quite spectacular - cookies taste better than tobacco.
Because while the narrative seems to be that it’s all “candy and bubble gum” - two things which adults also quite like - but that’s not how vape juice flavors work. They’re also fruits, and cakes, and pies, and peanut butter and jelly, and chocolate mousse, and a thousand thousand other things whose flavors everyone enjoys. Flavors aren’t for children: flavors are for people.
Therefore, taking away flavors doesn’t just take them away from children (who anyway are likely to keep vaping tobacco flavors as long as vaping is “cool”), it takes them away from adults who are making a conscious decision to consume nicotine in this way, a decision which our principles of liberty proclaim must be allowed unless a compelling reason to the contrary exists. In this case, the “compelling reason” of youth vaping is not best served by a flavor ban, and thus there’s no reasonable cause to restrict the freedom of adult vapers everywhere. It might arguably be justified if a flavor ban would work, or if there was no better solution, but it won’t work, and there definitely is a better solution.
There’s a Better Way
Sometimes, the most direct solution is the best solution. If the problem is underage vaping, then the solution should be restricting access to vape products by underage persons. Rather than an indirect solution that also removes choice from adults, and probably won’t achieve its goals, let’s embrace a direct solution that maintains the freedom of choice for adults, while still protecting our youth.
That direct solution is access control. We need to make certain that vaping products are not available to underage persons. This is not a new problem! Note the position of cigarettes in your local store, and of chew: these are placed where they are to prevent access by underage persons. There have even been proposals to restrict the sales of vape juice to pharmacies, which already have strict access control for prescriptions.
But vaping doesn’t need that. Uniquely amongst new industries, vaping built its own distribution method, rather than buying into convenience stores and pharmacies early on. Thus the “vape shop” was born. This dedicated location can have strict access control, with underage persons not only being unable to purchase, but outright being unable to enter. Similar restrictions are possible online, where digital age verification services can make certain that the person ordering the product is of age.
This is a vastly superior solution to the problem. A teen is more likely to stop vaping because they cannot get ahold of vape juice than because they can still get it just as easily but it’s only tobacco-flavored.
The Best Solution to a Complex Problem
Nothing will eliminate youth vaping entirely, of course, but that shouldn’t enter into our decision-making: our goal must be the elimination of youth vaping, and a flavor ban will not produce that result. Not only won’t a flavor ban eliminate youth vaping, but it will cripple an industry, fill a marketplace with uncontrolled product, and violate the civil rights of millions of people.
Worse, it’s unnecessary. A better solution - doing a better job of restricting access to vapor products online and in person, possibly by restricting sales exclusively to vape shops - exists, and would not only do a better job of achieving our shared goal, but would do so at a more socially acceptable cost.
We all want the same thing: eliminate youth nicotine use. Let us set aside our preconceptions and any other interests we might have and take the course of action most likely to achieve that goal, not a misguided action born of fear and ignorance. Let’s follow logic, reason, and evidence to the logical conclusion: that flavor bans are less effective means of reducing youth vaping than improved access control will be.