Fundamental Questions Vaped

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Joanne Giannini’s essay in this space yesterday points in the direction of fundamental questions our society doesn’t seem interested in asking these days — much less answering.

A former state representative, Joanne was in office during a time when state government was cracking down on smoking.  She sees the rise of vaping as an as-bad-or-worse substitute cropping up and (one infers) probably deserving of the same response.

The first question is whether the rash of illnesses is actually an indication that vaping is truly dangerous.  Robert Verbruggen writes for NRO that reports of “the mystery vaping disease” merit investigation and concern, but indications are that they may be highlighting a tangential, not endemic, problem:

… while a lot remains to be learned about the illness, there are strong suggestions it’s caused by bad or counterfeit products, not by normal vaping. The cases cluster geographically, and in some states they have been found exclusively among those who vape cannabis products, not nicotine. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA director who launched a crackdown on vaping when studies showed teen use on the uptick, told KHN he suspects the problem is counterfeit pods, both because of the clustering and because the FDA inspects the facilities of legitimate manufacturers to ensure the products aren’t contaminated.

This, in other words, may be less like cigarettes, which cause disease by their nature, than like food poisoning.  If that’s the case, then regulation should be less about limiting access as a way of discouraging use than about helping consumers differentiate between safer and riskier products.

Either way, the question remains what our society ought to do when the short- and long-term effects of a consumable are unknown or are known to be bad.  Limiting their use by minors, who are presumed to be unprepared to make informed decisions, is an obvious possibility.  But shouldn’t adults be permitted to balance the risks and rewards of these things for themselves?



  • Joanne Giannini

    The effects of Vaping are not known to the extent that they should be. Yet we see Vapor Parlors popping up and Vapor stores selling products. The FDA has not regulated all these products and who is monitoring what is being sold in some of these stores, Smoking parlors and on the streets?
    Tobacco was always considers safe in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40,’s
    And even 5o’s. Long range effects were first told in the 1960’s and many still did not believe. By the time the CDC gets full info and monitors all the parties involved, it could be too late for many of our teens and even some adults who believe that Vaping is safe.

    • Justin Katz

      I do think a bit more regulation might be justified under the mandate of informing the public, and the unknown nature of the effects justifies an age restriction. However, I think it’s way too early to start bans and that sort of thing; unknowns ought to be decided in favor of freedom.

  • Joe Smith

    But shouldn’t adults be permitted to balance the risks and rewards of these things for themselves?

    Justin, your fair question assumes though the risks are well costed into the price of the product and the leaves open the question of whether the costs are all “internalized” in the market.

    I’m not sure the issue of whether secondhand aerosol from electronic smoking devices has been fully researched (negative externality component). Second, as noted by Ms. Giannini the long-term effects on the user are unclear and there is no mechanism I know to price ESD use into things like health insurance or set any surcharge/special tax to pool into publicly provided health care.

    If nothing else, efficiency might suggest a surcharge that would fund specifically research on the product because the private sector – I assume JUUL and other ESD makers are doing research too – findings should at least be peer reviewed by an independent entity. Something the President has suggested – https://reason.com/2019/03/12/trump-wants-to-tax-your-juul/ although whether the same taxation rate as something known to create negative externalities should apply is debatable.

    • Justin Katz

      I don’t concede that it is the government’s role to ensure that risks are priced properly in the market. In fact, to the degree that public policy gives government a claim to such a role (as with health care), I take that as evidence that we should reduce the involvement of government. There is no barrier at all between the admission that government should ensure private transactions have no adverse effects on people not involved in the transactions and complete totalitarian domination of the individual.

      • Joe Smith

        The point of negative externalities is the private market won’t price them into the market since the costs (or benefits for the positive ones) are borne (or accrue) to non-market participants. The Coase theorem might posit the participants could bargain to correct the externalities, but that assumes well defined property rights (and who adjudicates property rights / contracts?) and low transaction costs (difficult when you are talking about many participants).

        Does the government need to ensure all risks are priced? No, I didn’t claim that. Risks that are internalized in the market should get sorted out through sufficient voluntary exchanges (perhaps not perfectly but what markets are). But spare me the claim there is no space between correcting negative externalities and “totalitarian domination of the individual.”

        Are you trying to eliminate Tiverton ordinances on say the onerous requirement to keep a dog restrained or fenced that I transacted to buy and I keep on my private property? After all, I understand the risk in buying a dog; if the dog escapes and bites someone I may be sued. I can hedge that risk by training the dog, buying insurance, or perhaps building appropriate restraints. Why do I need the town of Tiverton to put such burdens on my private transaction that I “consume” on my private property to protect non-market participants? I’ll price those risks into my purchase – why do I need Tiverton to impose specific solutions and costs on my private market transaction?

        • Justin Katz

          I didn’t say “no space”; I said “no barriers.” Without too much difficulty, people could avoid significant quantities of second-hand vape mist. If it came to it, businesses could cater to one group or another, and we all could decide. Because there is only space, and no barrier, between the involvement of government in these things and totalitarianism, it behooves us to err on the side of freedom.

          I happen to agree on your point vis-a-vis dogs. A guy can only do so much at a time, though, and correcting basic operations has to come before correcting legislative excesses.

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