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Why banning vaping is a mistake

  • Published at 07:06 pm March 30th, 2019

It may do more harm than good

It’s important to understand that we live in a second best world.

As a grand idea sure, if every government made exactly the right decision at exactly the right time then life would be better. Now, everyone put a hand up who claims that every government is even capable of making that right decision? Really? Somalia? Venezuela? Zimbabwe? The opposition party in whatever election you’re just about to fight?

None of us does believe that fallible human beings are going to make exactly that correct decision every time. Freidrich Hayek even gained his Nobel for proving that they never can have the necessary information to do so, even if they were the otherwise perfect rulers of the rest of us.

We are, thus, in a second best world. That perfect solution isn’t available to us, and we’ve got to just rub along with what is possible. Which brings us to a recent call for vaping, electronic cigarettes, to be banned in Bangladesh.

In that perfection where none of us do what is wrong, none of us will damage our health for some fleeting pleasure of a hit of this or that drug. That’s not the world we inhabit, obviously, for if it were there would be no one literate who smoked, or drank, or took drugs just for fun. Or, actually, anyone who did anything so human as to have, as the economists put it, a short-time horizon. That being the jargon for how some will take pleasure now for problems.

There is, obviously, no explanation for teenage boys other than this existence of short-time horizons.

So, we are, as with governance itself and the economy, in that second best world. Banning something that is bad for people can indeed work, but only if they don’t want it very much. If they do desire, then it is risk management that is required, a look at relative risks and problems, not an insistence upon a perfection that cannot be achieved.

So, tobacco use. Does smoking kill? It most surely does, smoking cigarettes will take prematurely from this world some one-third of those who indulge. At least one-third. So, what would we like to do here? Insist upon that perfection where no one partakes of the tobacco leaf? Or get as close to doing no harm as we can?

My answer would be that we should be going for harm reduction. Sure, no one has yet proven that vaping, or e-cigarettes, causes no harm. I don’t expect anyone will either, the drug nicotine itself is harmful. Yet, we really are very certain indeed that ingesting or inhaling nicotine along with steam is less harmful than doing so with the other few hundred carcinogens in the smoke from burnt tobacco. Thus, at this first stage, vaping is less harmful than full-on smoking.

This doesn’t end the conversation, of course it doesn’t. For, perhaps, vaping is so pleasurable that many more will do it than those who would smoke directly? The lesser individual harm being more than made up by the more harming themselves individually?

A concern we can put at rest, for we have absolutely no evidence that it’s true, rather a lot against it. The most convincing being that among teens -- where such habits start -- the smoking plus vaping rate is about what the smoking rate used to be before vaping was invented.

In economic terms, we call this the difference between a substitute and a complement. A complement means that more of one leads to more of the other. Say, more unmarried sex is going to lead to more out-of-wedlock births. For, obviously enough, if the first never happened then nor would the second. A substitute is where, instead of doing this thing, people do this thing over here. A controversial but true example being that the general availability of pornography leads to less rape and sexual assault.

Everything we know about vaping tells us that, yes, there are two effects going on as there near always are in anything about humans. Some who would never have smoked do vape. Some who would have, or did, smoke now only vape.

What we want to know is, what the net effect? Those who move down in harm from tobacco to vaping hugely outweigh those travelling in the opposite direction. Allowing vaping, even going so far as to subsidize it, reduces the human harm done by the fact that some of us do like the effects of nicotine.

Of course, this is to entirely walk by the basic freedom and liberty argument, that those who wish to meet Hell early have the right to do so from their habits.

But, it is true that we live in this second best world, as the reference to Hell and thus the corollaries, Heaven, Paradise, and reincarnation all insist; so our task is to do what we can, not to plan for what cannot be achieved.

Vaping reduces the harm done by tobacco and nicotine -- thus, banning it isn’t the way to make this world that better a place.

Tim Worstall is a senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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