The FDA Flavor Ban: Another Futile Government Restriction?

Photo by wild vibes on Unsplash

In an attempt to curtail teen nicotine addiction, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has implemented a ban on fruit, mint, and dessert flavored e-cigarette cartridges effective next month. FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D believes “the enforcement policy we’re issuing today confirms our commitment to dramatically limit children’s access to certain flavored e-cigarette products we know are so appealing to them,” and claims “We will continue to use our full regulatory authority thoughtfully and thoroughly to tackle this alarming crisis.” While this initiative seems proactive, government restrictions have been fundamentally ineffective at mitigating harmful substance use. A brief glance into recent history will give some context.

It is common knowledge that goods made legally difficult to obtain often appear on the black market. New York’s cigarette smuggling ring is arguably one of the most infamous cases of such activity. The state’s history of cigarette tax hikes has spawned a multi-million dollar underground industry. In fact, smuggling increased 59% from 2006 to 2014 despite multiple preventative legislative efforts enacted during that time period. According to Michael LaFaive, the senior director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, “My colleagues and I estimate that in 2017, more than half of all cigarettes consumed in the Empire State were smuggled. That’s more than 324 million packs of smokes in one year.” The center also estimated $1.5 billion in forgone 2016 New York state tax revenue due to black market consumer preferences. Although the cigarettes under examination could be obtained simply by traveling to a less expensive state, this instance shows how prolific the willingness to illegally possess, distribute, and consume contraband can become.

A quick reference to teen marijuana use over the past few decades provides another example regarding the impotence of government regulatory procedures. Though marijuana was federally criminalized by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970, high school student marijuana usage still fluctuated. There was an approximate 40% increase in the amount of 12th grade marijuana consumers from 1975 to 1978 and an approximate twofold increase from 1992 to 1999. The 1990’s also saw strong upticks in 8th and 10th grade marijuana use with increases of 253% and 153% respectively. While a steep decline in 12th grade marijuana use occurred in the 1980’s, the same data source showed a momentary increase in cocaine use and the beginning of an 11 year upward trend in LSD use during that decade.

Perhaps the most crucial factor to take note of is the rationale behind why teens turn to substance use in the first place. Some common reasons for vaping presented in a survey of 12th graders were:

  • Experimentation
  • Having a good time with friends
  • Relieving tension
  • Getting High
  • Boredom

These listed motives are also applicable to teen drug use in general. No ban, no matter how rigorous, will remove the entrenched desires that lead to drug use. So long as the reasons for teen drug consumption are still predominant, the same dangerous behavior will manifest itself in different forms. One of these forms could be resorting to hazardous legal substances. An over-the-counter cough medicine, Coricidin High Blood Pressure (HBP) Cough and Cold or Triple C, is such a substance. Triple C contains dextromethorphan (DXM), a cough suppressant with hallucinogenic qualities. Abuse of DXM could lead to chemical psychosis, says a report by the University of Rochester Medical Center. Though 15 states have outlawed DXM sales to minors, this tactic has not prevented misuse.

Another legal-yet-harmful option is inhalant use or huffing. “More than 1,000 products are used as inhalants. Many of them ordinary household goods,” according to Mayo Clinic. Chosen items can range anywhere from paint thinner to cooking spray. Inhalant abuse can cause permanent damage to the brain, heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys. Unfortunately, death is also a probable outcome. The Foundation for a Drug Free World reported 22% of first time inhalers dying from Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS), which is when the swift acting side effects of huffing induce death. Such relevant side effects include:

  • Irregular/Rapid heart rhythm
  • Asphyxiation
  • Convulsions/Seizures
  • Comas

Teen inhalant use experienced a strong and lengthy upward trend in the past. The aforementioned high school marijuana data source showed 12th grade inhalant use appearing to have doubled between the mid 1970’s and the mid 1990’s. 8th graders had the highest percentage of users out of the surveyed groups with over 12% around 1994/1995. While it isn’t certain the FDA ban will spur a resurgence in this trend, the mere possibility is severe enough to be wary of.

While the justification behind the FDA’s recent vape restriction may be rooted in virtuousness, sentiments will not aid fruitless policy decisions in achieving desirable results. Government substance restrictions have an abysmal record of lessening harmful substance related practices. It is ill-founded to believe the FDA ban will fare any better than its forlorn predecessors.

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