In 1920, the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol was made illegal in the United States. Thirteen years later, prohibition was repealed — but not before making criminals out of previously upright citizens, corrupting government officials, and making way for organized crime yet unseen on the American landscape. If the FDA has its way, electronic cigarette prohibition might not be far away.
Prohibition started with good intentions from some and not so good intentions from others. Many conservatives saw alcohol as a destructive substance offering little in return for the evils it wrought. Primarily, prohibition started as a protestant movement against bars as dens of sin and immorality — the coordinating group behind prohibition was even called the Anti-Saloon League. The league is credited with developing pressure politics — use of mass media and mass communications to convince politicians that its goals mirror the wants of the general populace.
This isn’t unlike the efforts against electronic cigarettes being led now by various political and scientific groups claiming that electronic cigarettes offer no benefit and merely represent a new way to addict and ensnare potential smokers. The problem is that many of the individuals behind this effort have little to no understanding of the actual mindset of smokers.
Most citizens and even the politicians that voted for prohibition actually felt it was fairly unnecessary. Many drinkers found the law arbitrary and often chose to circumvent it. Famously, president Warren G. Harding actually relocated a large supply of alcohol into the White House following his inauguration only a year after prohibition started. Instances like these led normally law-abiding citizens to view all laws with less legitimacy.
In general, prohibition undermined the legitimacy of government in general and led to the creation of the first strong organized crime groups in the U.S. It was the first time that organized crime could have a corner on a massive market without competing with legitimate businesses. If people wanted to drink, they had to make it themselves or buy it from the black market.
This is (or at least should be) a major concern for regulators that would consider removing a legitimate e-cig industry from the market. FDA regulation as it stands will essentially make legally producing and selling electronic cigarettes impossible (though not explicitly illegal). This will likely create a strong black market — one that customers are actually thankful for and loyal to. E-cig users by and large view e-cigs as far cleaner and safer than tobacco cigarettes — whether regulated or not. Whether this is true or not (it is) doesn’t matter.
An unregulated black market when dealing with chemicals (in this case, nicotine vaporizing solutions) is a dangerous thing. But if e-cig users believe using e-cigs saves them from a slow, debilitating death from tobacco cigarettes, they’ll go wherever they have to to get more.
Prohibition ultimately led to a great deal of corruption within the government and among law enforcement. Cops either chose to accept bribes or were inundated with so much “crime” they could barely do their jobs. Politicians were alcohol consumers just like the rest of the country. General consensus grew that prohibition was too much trouble, not enough good, and ultimately weighed heaviest on the lower class which could be arrested for one bottle of wine while upper-class sat on top of cellars full of the stuff.
The only trackable positive: Cirrhosis of the liver dropped by roughly two-thirds during Prohibition.
We can’t draw comparisons to all aspects of prohibition, but perhaps the dawn of electronic cigarettes should be viewed as an opportunity to wage a more dramatic war against conventional cigarettes. Removing e-cigs from the market only increases the odds people return to conventional cigarettes. Regulators could instead take this as an opportunity to strike a mortal wound to the smoking market.
Why not make smoking so impossibly expensive or downright difficult to maintain that people are forced to choose between quitting and e-cigs? That’s a far better choice than quit or smoke yourself to death.