The history of the war on drugs should be a warning for anti-vaping crusade …

Eighty-nine years ago, alcohol prohibition ended. Not only did prohibition destroy millions of families and lives, but it also created some of the largest and most fearsome mafia cartels ever seen. But what is less known is that it also kick-started the war on drugs, which we still see today. 

Johann Hari described the beginning of the war on drugs in his book “Chasing the Scream” very nicely, and one of the key figures is Harry Anslinger, who became commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. In a recent podcast, Hari describes Anslinger as “the evilest man whom nobody knows”. He took over the Bureau on the verge of the end of alcohol prohibition. He quickly realized that without alcohol as enemy number one, he needed a new target to justify his job’s existence and keep the funding for his agency flowing. According to Hari, he started to push for a war on heroin and cocaine but realized that too few people were consuming those products to justify the massive amount of money flowing into his agency. So, his “evil” plan was to start a war on cannabis. This fell ‘perfectly’ in line with his racial segregationist worldviews, and he could target black people and jazz music. Additionally, he detested people addicted (from his point of view) to any substances. What was missing was a scary story to start the war on cannabis.

So, when he heard about a brutal axe murder, he knew this was the moment he was waiting for. Victor Licata had murdered his family with an axe. Even though doctors determined he was suffering from schizophrenia, his cannabis consumption was blamed

 Finally, Anslinger had his perfect story, claiming during a congressional hearing, “Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes.” This was the start of a massive anti-cannabis campaign (including starting using the term marihuana to make it sound more Mexican, according to Laura Smith) and led to the prohibition of cannabis which is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and destroyed millions of lives.

Why is this relevant for the vaping world? The answer is simple: politics still work in very similar ways. Here are four reasons how:  

  1. Prohibition kills

If policymakers by now should have learned one thing from history, it is that prohibition doesn’t work. Alcohol prohibition in the US was a complete disaster leading to more alcohol consumption and unsafe consumption and generating massive, deadly criminal cartels. The war on drugs worldwide is a complete failure and has often resulted in counterproductive policies. Prohibition ruined millions of lives in the US and the war on drugs almost collapsed entire countries. By banning products, the demand doesn’t vanish, but the supplier changes from official businesses to black market actors. This might sound too simplistic, but it is a fact of history. Therefore, it is fair to assume that the war on vaping will have the same results. Banning, or even restricting, vaping and nicotine for adults will boost black market activities and increase the consumption of already prohibited products.

  1. Bureaucracies never achieve their goals

The story from the Bureau of Narcotics perfectly describes the concept of “mission creep“. Government agencies, but also many NGOs, never win – no matter what their goal is. After alcohol’s prohibition ended, they didn’t say: “well, we’re not needed anymore, so let’s give up the cushy job and pension” – they started to look for new targets. In this case, it was cannabis. When it comes to the anti-smoking complex, it is vaping and nicotine. Instead of celebrating declining numbers of smokers and far fewer deaths, many governments, public health agencies, and anti-smoking activists have been on the hunt for new enemies. They decided to scapegoat vaping and nicotine in general, and as a result, the fight against smoking gradually transformed into a battle against nicotine.

  1. A war on drugs also means a war on science

To keep up a war against a particular substance, government agencies and NGOs need the public on their side, and as history has shown, to some, this is more important than scientific facts. The classic examples are the early days of anti-cannabis movies and posters claiming weed makes us crazy. Here is an example

“The ultimate end of the marihuana addict: hopeless insanity.” A statement like this has nothing to do with the scientific reality, but the public was bombarded with horror stories to keep up their opposition towards cannabis.

It is a fair claim that we can observe similarities with the anti-vaping crowd. More than three years after the EVALI (alleged health damages attributed to vaping) “outbreak”, we still can read newspaper articles or hear politicians claiming that vaping kills people – even though this claim was debunked multiple times.

Another consequence of this bias is that science becomes one-sided, and potential benefits are neglected. A review of 755 case studies about the general effects of vaping concluded that only 37 “are eligible for precise criteria of scientific quality”. What makes such a bias even worse is that these studies are often used to base vaping policy. 

The war on vaping & nicotine also discourages people from switching away from cigarettes. This will impair public health. Not only that, but unnecessarily, many people will keep smoking. The narrow limits on scientific research regarding nicotine will rob us of potential innovation and maybe even treatments for many diseases. Recently, we saw the consequences of misinformation and anti-science propaganda at its peak, where The Guardian reported that an Australian doctor gave his son cigarettes to quit vaping.

  1. Ideology corrupts public institutions

Milton Friedman once said that “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program”, and I think it is fair to say that he was right with this assessment. Even when facts change, politicians and official institutions rarely change their opinion or approaches. The war on drugs is a prime example of that. We can’t even keep drugs out of prisons, but still, many politicians think it is possible to keep them out of a whole country or even a continent, which is impossible. But it can get even worse: not only do some not change their attitude when new scientific or real-world evidence emerges, but sometimes they even try to suppress new evidence. One of the worst examples is one of the most extensive studies ever on global cocaine use by the WHO in 1995. The study disagreed with every aspect of the US war on drugs. It said: “An increase in the adoption of responses such as education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes is a desirable counterbalance to the over-reliance on law enforcement.” What happened to the study? According to Ben Goldacre, it was retracted because the US threatened the WHO to pull its funding if they would publish the study (which later was leaked).

When it comes to vaping, we see a similar trend with the WHO. Its approach is riddled with biassed anti-vaping scaremongering and false claims whenever they touch the issue. Rather than focus on the all-important goal of reducing smoking, the WHO is turning its guns on vaping, the most potent smoking cessation tool on the planet. They find it more important to follow the narrow-minded ‘quit or die’ approach trumpeted by the WHO’s billionaire sponsors, like Mike Bloomberg. The WHO systematically ignores the wealth of scientific evidence pointing to the benefits of vaping, not to mention the first-hand experience of millions of vapers.



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Vaping can save 200 million lives and flavours play a key role in helping smokers quit. However, policymakers want to limit or ban flavours, putting our effort to end smoking-related deaths in jeopardy.

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