- Viral videos showed cops tasing and beating teens after they allegedly vaped on a boardwalk.
- Vaping bans came about during a 2019 anti-science moral panic, and most should be repealed immediately.
- But all laws are ultimately enforced through the threat of police violence.
- Remember this outrage the next time you’re compelled to say: “There ought to be a law.”
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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We shouldn’t be shocked by the viral video of an unarmed young man — arms raised and clearly no threat to anyone — being tased and hog-tied by police.
Nor should we be shocked by a different viral video showing officers from the same Ocean City, Maryland police department violently arresting a teenager after he and his friends allegedly vaped in a public space near the ocean.
Don’t get me wrong, we should be appalled, offended, and determined to address the institutional rot that led to these disgusting acts of state violence.
But we should not be shocked.
These incidents are the completely predictable result of laws passed in the middle of a moral panic, supposedly in the interests of public health, now being used as yet another justification for unnecessary confrontations between law enforcement and citizens.
It’s a reminder that all laws, even the “good” ones, are ultimately enforced by the threat of violence. And a year after the George Floyd protests against police brutality, it also shows how little has changed when it comes to cops enforcing petty vice laws as if they were subduing a mass shooter.
We should think a lot harder when we demand the government make criminals out of more of us, “for our own good.”
Vaping bans are stupid anti-science laws that should be repealed immediately
In the heat of an “epidemic” of vaping-related lung injuries in late 2019, laws banning vapes were instituted all over the country. It was a bipartisan rush to legislate away the growing popularity of products like Juul, with even the regulation-averse Trump administration slapping bans on some flavored vapes. (Trump quickly regretted his decision, a case of a stopped clock being right twice a day.)
But the vaping epidemic — which was variously attributed to the mysterious lung injuries and the precipitous rise in youth vaping — was largely a mirage driven by sensationalistic media coverage contradicted by scientific investigation, and exploited by incurious politicians trying to display decisive, resolute leadership in the interests of public health.
It turns out that what most people think of as “vapes” — legal nicotine-delivery cartridges manufactured by large companies — had almost nothing to do with the rash of e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI).
Nearly every reported case of EVALI was attributed to black market THC vapes in states where marijuana is still illegal for recreational use, according to a study by the New England Journal of Medicine. In essence, a “for your own good” ban on a widely-used product led people to buy bootleg versions of that product, making them much sicker as a result.
Health and science experts repeatedly assert that while vaping isn’t necessarily “good” for you, it’s magnitudes safer than smoking tobacco products, which *still* kills almost a half-million people each year.
Some bans, like the FDA’s prohibition on flavored cigarettes (excluding menthol), produced a substantial reduction in smoking rates among youths and young adults (but not older adults).
But smoking in general has dropped across all demographics year by year for the past two decades. Over the past 10 years, vaping rates are way up, but not higher than previous smoking rates. Meanwhile, it seems that kids are moving back to cigarettes after just over a year of widespread vape bans.
So instead of eradicating youth smoking, vape bans are bringing cigarettes back from extinction.
And the vaping bans just keep on coming, even as a recent study by the Yale School of Public Health suggests bans on flavored vapes have led to increased smoking rates among teens — which had plummeted to historic lows after vaping became widely popular in the mid-2010s.
The emergence of COVID in early 2020 knocked the “vaping crisis” off the front pages. But after more than a year of the worst pandemic in a century, it’s hard to fathom vaping was briefly a nation-consuming public health calamity.
The whole thing was a moral panic. There’s no other way to say it.
But the laws, bans, and ordinances put in place during that panic remain firmly in place. Since they were based on bad reporting contradicted by science, they should be repealed immediately.
But it’s far more likely these socially destructive laws will be expanded, rather than discarded.
We haven’t “fixed” policing yet, so let’s not create more unnecessary conflicts between cops and citizens — like vaping bans
You’d think that after a year where the national conversation has largely hinged upon America’s legacy as the world’s all-time leader in incarceration that there’d be a groundswell to review some of our innumerable laws and their recommended punishments.
That’s why this weekend’s viral videos from the Ocean City boardwalk are so striking, because a number of systemic problems in the US justice system were laid bare:
- Black and brown people continue to face disproportionate enforcement of petty vice laws. (According to a 2018 study published in the Boston University Law Review, “the black arrest rate is at least twice as high as the white arrest rate for disorderly conduct, drug possession, simple assault, theft, vagrancy, and vandalism.”)
- Police are still needlessly escalating situations and creating violence.
- And they’re still using tactics like kneeling on a suspect, kicking them while in a prone position, and hog-tying them — all to assert their authority.
Addressing these crucial, yet difficult issues is hard. Making criminals out of vapers is easy. And so this vicious cycle continues.
But we never learn, and our lawmakers don’t seem to either.
President Joe Biden’s administration recently implemented a ban on menthol cigarettes, citing their popularity in Black communities as its justification. The move was supported by several Black civil rights organizations, including the NAACP.
This prohibition is unnecessary, as Black smoking rates continue to plummet (thanks to legitimate nicotine vapes).
But it’s also dangerous, as it turns a product more likely to be used in Black neighborhoods into an expensive, criminalized asset.
That’s why the ACLU opposed the ban on the grounds that it would “foster an underground market that is sure to trigger criminal penalties which will disproportionately impact people of color and prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction.”
When we criminalize adults’ personal behavior “for the public good,” we create criminals, and facilitate thousands of unnecessary law enforcement confrontations.
We need to remember that every time an activity or a product is criminalized, that law will be enforced at the barrel of a gun — or in this case, a taser and a gang of cops pouncing on children.
In January 2020 I wrote a column titled, “The vaping panic is looking eerily like the start of a new drug war.” In it, I warned: “Much like the failed war on drugs, the results of vaping prohibition will almost certainly include black markets … the overcriminalization of at-risk groups, and, very likely, increased cigarette smoking.”
It’s June 2021, and all of these things are happening.
So let’s be appalled, but not shocked, the next time we see cops beating up kids for vaping.
Instead, let’s resist media-hyped panics that lead to reactive, ill-considered prohibitions. And let’s demand real police reform that ends the culture of cops instinctively dropping their boots on citizens.