Why Vaping Kills: Prohibition and Capitalism

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A few weeks back I was talking about vaping with a friend, who asked me if I wasn’t worried about the spate of deaths that had happened due, apparently, to vape pens. As of this month, more than 2,000 cases of lung injury due to vaping have been reported to the CDC and 42 people have died.

I told my friend no, I wasn’t worried, because I vape cannabis flowers and I could not see any possible way that that would be dangerous. People have been smoking cannabis flowers for several millennia now without a single person dying from it, and the only difference between smoking it and vaping it is that you inhale less burnt shit into your lungs. With vaping, nothing is set on fire, and you’re not breathing in paper or any other additive. Just a fun little dried out flower.

I pointed out to my friend that the problem was probably related to vapes that kids were using, that are filled with an unregulated THC-containing substance with an added “fake snickerdoodle” flavor for pizzazz. Sure enough, the CDC has just identified the most likely culprit: vitamin E. “But Rebecca,” you cry, “vitamins are supposed to be good for us!” Yeah, they are, unless you’re taking way too many because you think it’ll fix your shitty diet, or if you vaporize it and put it into your lungs.

Vitamin E oil is commonly used to beef up vapes on the black market, reducing the amount of THC in a vape but increasing the total amount of product, making customers think they’re getting a good deal. It only started showing up in the last year, going from being nonexistent to being in about half of all cartridges sold. But it turns out, it’s not terribly healthy to put fats into your lungs. They get all sticky and gross and activate your immune response, which goes insane and starts attacking your own lung tissue in an attempt to remove the fats.

These deaths would not have happened were it not for two overwhelming forces: capitalism and prohibition.

The capitalism part is the reason why people have died to drugs for ages. It’s why people cut cocaine with laundry detergent and heroin with cheaper fentanyl. People want more money and too often they don’t mind other people dying for it.

The other part is prohibition. While tobacco vaping products are very popular, and while several states have legalized THC vapes, the people who got sick were nine times more likely to have bought THC vapes from illicit sources. Here in California, dispensaries are rushing to verify that their vapes have not been cut and are safe. Meanwhile, counterfeit vapes will continue to be sold on the street without concern for what’s in them.

When we make a drug illegal, people continue to seek it out but are then left to the whims of those who will put money over safety because they have no reason to care. There is no oversight. There is no sunlight — if a customer dies here or there it might hurt business but if it’s rare enough and no one links it back to you, no big deal.

You might wonder if all the press this is getting might lead to people thinking twice before they buy illegal vapes. The answer is “probably not,” and we know this thanks to alcohol prohibition in the US in the 1920s.

When the US outlawed alcohol, alcoholism soared, as did the number of deaths from people drinking tainted industrial alcohol. The result was not what the drafters of prohibition thought, at all. They were shocked that people were continuing to find ways to make or steal, denature, and drink alcohol even when it tasted terrible and made them sick. So by 1926 Coolidge’s government tried a new trick: they purposely made industrial alcohol much, much deadlier. Allow me to list some of the additives the government put in alcohol, courtesy of Deborah Blum, author of the Poisoner’s Handbook:

“Kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone.”

Over the next five years, the government’s actions would kill upwards of 10,000 Americans. Throughout that time, people like Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City, were extremely outspoken about what was happening. He publicized every death and constantly called upon the government to stop what they were doing, but people kept drinking and dying.

Blum quotes him saying “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol, yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

And the government never learned the lesson. Yes, they ended prohibition of alcohol, but then enacted prohibition of cannabis. In the 1970s, they sprayed Mexican cannabis fields with an herbicide, hoping that the toxin would discourage people from using it. Guess what? It didn’t.

I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way since then but we have former Vice President and current potential Democratic candidate for president Joe Biden announcing that he will never end prohibition of cannabis because it’s a “gateway drug.” The idea of a gateway anything is often a slippery slope argument. Is weed the gateway, or is it alcohol, which is much easier to obtain, and much more dangerous. As in, you can actually die from drinking the totally pure, safest form of alcohol, which you simply cannot do from consuming cannabis.

Prohibition of drugs simply does not work, and it’s time that we stop treating addicts like criminals and start making recreational drugs as safe as possible, while providing universal healthcare that will actually help people with addictions as opposed to throwing them in prison where they learn how to be better criminals.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. C’mon Rebecca, don’t blame this on capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system, not a business plan. If anything, this is more an issue with free markets than capitalism, but even that isn’t accurate. Black markets are not free because they are not subject to the controls afforded by open competition, government and the courts.

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