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Every now and then I have to grind my axe against reflexive prohibitionism and the misplaced blame for health issues that runs along with it. This time, my outburst is prompted first by a recent study of opioid deaths, and by developments in the vastly less horrifying vaping scare. Both of these issues are like red meat to the busy-bodies of the world, who just can’t stand to sit by knowing that someone might be doing something into which they might affect an heroic intervention.

Pain Is the Price

Pharmaceutical companies have been settling opioid lawsuits brought against them for failing to provide adequate warnings with opioid painkillers about the potential for addiction, for allegedly distributing quantities in areas with “vulnerable” populations, and for other aggressive marketing tactics. Purdue Pharmaceuticals filed for bankruptcy after agreeing to $12 billion in settlements. Many more cases remain for these companies. Settlements, of course, are not admissions of guilt. Rather, they are the least costly way for these companies to extract themselves from situations in which they have been scapegoated by the grieving families of victims, plaintiffs’ attorneys with instincts for deep pockets, and naive reporting by an uninformed news media.

This week came reports of a new study in Massachusetts that found only a small percentage of opioid deaths in which decedents had been prescribed an opioid. According to the researchers:

The major proximal contributors to opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts during the study period were illicitly made fentanyl and heroin. … The people who died with a prescription opioid like oxycodone in their toxicology screen often don’t have a prescription for it.”  

And as Jacob Sullum notes at the last link, this is in line with a number of other studies:

A 2007 study found that 78 percent of OxyContin users seeking addiction treatment reported that they had never been prescribed the drug for any medical reason. Other studies have found that only a small minority of people treated for pain, ranging from something like 1 percent of post-surgical patients to less than 8 percent of chronic pain patients, become addicted to their medication. A 2015 study of opioid-related deaths in North Carolina found 478 fatalities among 2.2 million residents who were prescribed opioids in 2010, an annual rate of 0.022 percent.”

Most people who become addicted to opioids, and most people who OD, begin their use in pursuit of a high. There are issues over which the pharmaceutical industry can be criticized, but it does not deserve much blame for abuse of the medications it produces. Providing pain medications to health care providers for patients with legitimate needs should not be subject to such severe legal risk. This fraught legal environment has a chilling effect on the willingness of manufacturers to meet those needs, not to mention risk-averse physicians. You, too, are likely to suffer severe pain one day, and your plight will be made worse by these effective prohibitionists.

The Vaping Panic

The dangers of vaping are vastly exaggerated, and the tremendous benefits of vaping for those wishing to quit smoking cigarettes have seemingly been forgotten. Vaping products are far less dangerous than cigarettes, but it matters little to prohibitionists at the federal and state levels. This includes the Trump Administration and such Democrats as Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, who have jumped on the anti-vaping bandwagon with an opportunistic fervor.

Vaping has increased dramatically among teenagers. Flavored or otherwise, it is likely to have substituted for cigarettes among teens to some extent. Many adult vapers seem to like flavored vaping products as well. As others have noted, a ban on flavored vaping products will make little difference: vapers like the nicotine! And like any form of prohibition, vaping bans will lead to more dangerous varieties of product as buyers turn to the black market for vaping supplies, or simply smoke more cigarettes.

A recent proposal in the House Ways and Means Committee to tax e-cigarettes is also terribly misguided. If we’re going to “nudge” anyone, which in this case is to follow the traditional economic prescription to tax things that harm, then surely we ought to consider where the greater harm lies. Cigarettes are already taxed. Introducing a tax on a relatively new alternative constituting a far lesser harm is sure to have undesirable effects on public health.


It must be cathartic to identify someone or something to blame for tragedies for which the victims themselves are largely at fault. We know too that the enterprise of bringing legal action against corporate scapegoats is financially rewarding. Unfortunately, those scapegoats can have little confidence in the courts’ ability to reach objective decisions, so they feel compelled to settle with plaintiffs at still great expense. It’s a racket that leads to stunted development of new drugs and under-prescription of painkillers. Tort reform, potentially to include caps on damages and financial risks to plaintiffs attorneys, can mitigate these effects, and it is as important now as ever.

Alarmism over vaping creates risks of a different nature. Vaping is not free of risk, but neither is it a massive threat to public health. It is, in fact, a less harmful alternative than cigarette smoking. Authorities should be cautious in their approach to regulating vapes and e-cigarettes, lest they discourage attractive and safer alternatives to smoking.