21st Century Prohibition


One of the more aggravating stories of American political subterfuge that’s been playing out since the turn of the millennium is how Republicans have sabotaged the United States Postal Service.  Back in 2006, while they still had control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans passed a bill requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund their workers’ pensions for the next seventy-five years over just a ten-year span. This bill targeted the Postal Service specifically, and no other governmental agency. Although “snail mail” has been in rapid decline in the Internet Age, the Postal Service was actually still profitable back in 2006; after they had to make these exorbitant pre-payments on employee pensions, though, those profits quickly turned into huge losses.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why conservatives want to get rid of the Postal Service; it’s run by the government, and of course anything run by the government is, in their view, inherently evil. Republicans can’t go directly after the Postal Service for a couple of reasons, though; first of all, the Postal Service is the biggest public-sector employer in the nation, and one of the biggest employers of any kind in America, so they’ve got numbers on their side. More importantly, though, it’s directly stated in the Constitution that the government of the United States has to run a postal service. It’s not one of those sloppily-written amendments, either; it was in there from the start, because a national post service was pretty much a necessity to facilitate the development of a young America.

The thing is, the Constitution can be changed. Not only is there a process to tack amendments to the Constitution, but also to hold a whole new Constitutional Convention. As much as our Constitution may have benefited us over the years, the fact is that right now we’re being governed by a document that was written when mail horses were state-of-the-art, and there’s an argument to be made that the world today is so much different than it was back then, and continuing to change so rapidly, that we need a new governing document (or at least a radically altered one) to better address the needs of the country and its citizens. Although I don’t agree with the idea of getting rid of the United States Postal Service, there is an argument to be made that today’s texts and emails and social media, to say nothing of private shippers like UPS and FedEx, have called into question the necessity of a government-run postal service.

Nowhere has the problem of a fast-moving nation being run by a slow-moving set of rules been more evident in the past few years than the issue of regulating vaping devices such as e-cigarettes. The new rules put forth by the FDA this past week are so late in coming that they might easily do more harm than good, and if vape shops are correct in saying that these new regulations could kill the whole market — although, like many, I suspect more than a little hyperbole in statement like that — then the country could be in for even more perilous times ahead.

Vaping is still so new that there are still a lot of misconceptions about it that are going out in all these news stories about the FDA’s actions. First of all, calling vape devices “tobacco products” is just wrong on its surface. Not only are only a small handful of vape devices even configured to use actual tobacco, but many vapers don’t even use nicotine in the e-liquid that they vape. Yes, some e-liquids contain THC or other drugs, but a lot of e-liquids just contain flavouring agents. Some people who vape don’t use any drugs at all in their vaping; they just like “making pretty clouds,” as I heard one vaper say.

Secondly — and we can extend this back to the sweeping FDA regulations on tobacco enacted in 2009 — can we please disabuse people of this notion that fruit and other sweet flavouring agents used in tobacco, or e-liquids, or whatever, are meant to entice kids? Did I miss the memo that said that once you turn eighteen, you’re only allowed to enjoy things that taste like nothing or death? Especially when it comes to cigarettes, no amount of flavouring is going to disguise the rankness of tobacco smoke. Adults enjoy fruit flavours just as much as kids do, and banning fruit flavourings in the name of “protecting kids” is myopic at best, if not downright stupid.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the FDA’s regulations are bad, or that the FDA isn’t operating under at least some good intentions. No one wants to make it easy for kids to get high, and I wholeheartedly agree that there need to be studies done on the long-term effects of vaping. The problem is that if you want to use that logic, then the federal government should shut down every fucking fracking well immediately until long-term studies can be done on the environmental effects of fracking and the people who live near fracking sites. The federal government should do that right away, of course, but once again they’re exempting big business from rules and principles that they apply to everyone else.

If the FDA wanted to impose strict new rules on vaping that have the potential to decimate the market, then the time for that was over five years ago, before vaping hit the critical mass that it’s achieved today. Back when vaping was still relatively niche, effectively taking people’s e-cigarettes away from them would have caused a lot of trouble, but it would have at least been manageable trouble. Trying to ban vaping today, or any day in the foreseeable future, would be catastrophic.

It’s not like we don’t have a model of what would happen in such a scenario, because we can go straight back to our good old friend, the Constitution, and see what happened during Prohibition. Not only did making alcohol illegal not cause alcohol to magickally disappear from America, but it brought widespread organized crime to our country and it hasn’t gone away since. If you have friends or family members who are hardcore vapers, then you know that these people have enough knowledge about building vaping devices that nothing short of banning electricity will stop these people from finding a way to vape. (Especially in an age of 3-D printers.) Similarly, recipes for e-liquid have already been shared so much now that there will always be people making it regardless of whatever laws get passed. (On that subject, one of my friends runs an e-liquid shop online, so for those of you who are into that sort of thing, please give her some business.)

I understand not liking the whole vaping thing, and wanting to be cautious about how people use the devices, but that doesn’t change the fact that the time to put strict guidelines into place passed long ago. Vaping is here to stay, like it or not, and the best thing we can do right now is to pass common-sense legislation to keep children from getting their hands on vaping stuff, fund short- and long-term research to look into the potential health risks of vaping, keep everything happening in daylight to reduce the risk of black markets and their attendant problems from cropping up, and enact consumer safety precautions to minimize risks of batteries exploding and things like that. (Yes, the battery thing is worrisome, but don’t forget all the deaths and injuries that have come from people smoking in bed.) If the FDA was going to try to kill vaping off then they needed to do it years ago, before so many people were doing it, and the worst thing they can do now is to compound a big mistake with a colossally bigger one.

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