The latest target of the public health bureaucracy’s regulatory efforts is flavored tobacco products, in particular, flavored vaping products that are often popular among young people. Bans on such products are cropping up around the country, but a new study shows that these restrictions can backfire—to deadly consequence.
Yale University Public Health Professor Abigail S. Friedman examined the impact of San Francisco’s ban on flavored products, and her new research, published in the prestigious medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, shows how it went wrong.
Of course, the goal of such bans is noble. Regulators hope to discourage teenagers from using any nicotine-related products, some of which persist in popularity despite it already being illegal for anyone under 18 to purchase them.
However, not all nicotine products are equally dangerous.
Nicotine, while addictive, is not actually what causes lung cancer. Instead, it’s the tar and other carcinogens that are found in traditional cigarettes—but not most vaping products—that can have lethal cancer-causing effects. Indeed, roughly 1,300 Americans a day die from diseases associated with traditional cigarette smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In contrast, public health experts have concluded that vaping is 95% healthier than traditional cigarette smoking. Meanwhile, almost all of the much-hyped “vaping-related deaths” come from black-market vaping products, which will only become more prevalent as legal products are restricted.
By banning flavored vaping products that attract young people, regulators unwittingly push teenagers to smoke traditional cigarettes—which are exponentially more deadly. This isn’t speculation: It’s exactly what happened in San Francisco.
“San Francisco’s ban on flavored tobacco product sales was associated with increased smoking among minor high school students relative to other school districts,” Friedman finds. “While the policy applied to all tobacco products, its outcome was likely greater for youths who vaped than those who smoked due to higher rates of flavored tobacco use among those who vaped.”
“This raises concerns that reducing access to flavored electronic nicotine delivery systems may motivate youths who would otherwise vape to substitute smoking,” the study continues. “Indeed, analyses of how minimum legal sales ages for electronic nicotine delivery systems are associated with youth smoking also suggest such substitution.”
These findings should serve as a final rebuke to the ongoing nanny state war against vaping products. However, there’s a much bigger picture takeaway here. When government bureaucrats try to meddle in complicated social issues and dictate individual decision-making from the top-down, dysfunction and unintended consequences inevitably follow.
“Every human action has both intended and unintended consequences,” economist Antony Davies and political scientist James Harrigan explained for FEE. “Human beings react to every rule, regulation, and order governments impose, and their reactions result in outcomes that can be quite different than the outcomes lawmakers intended.”
Time and time again, we see sweeping regulations backfire and have unintended consequences that achieve the exact opposite of their original goals. This is what Harrigan and Davies dubbed the “Cobra Effect.”
They told the comical yet revealing tale of how an Indian city placed a bounty on cobras to try and solve their infestation problem, yet achieved the opposite result. Why?
At first, more people hunted cobras to get the bounty, and the cobra population decreased. Yet then individuals started breeding and raising cobras at home in order to get the bounty again. When the government canceled the bounty because the population had seemingly declined, citizens released all the cobras they had been raising in their homes into the wild.
The end result was a worse infestation of cobras than the city had to begin with.
The same kind of backfire story is playing out in San Francisco. The pattern isn’t a coincidence; it’s how big government always works out.
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