Opinion: Anti-Vaping Laws Have Criminal Justice Ramifications

Disturbing videos from Ocean City, Maryland are prompting public outcry after altercations regarding public vaping resulted in teenagers being tasered, kneed, and violently restrained by police. On a recent Saturday evening, a group of teenagers were observed vaping on a boardwalk and were informed by police of a local ordinance prohibiting such activity. After speaking with the teens, police noticed a teen taking another puff from the vape. The officers re-engaged with the group and videos are now circulating showing the officers attacking the youths.  

In a separate incident, Ocean City police stopped a man for alleged vaping and tasered him while following police instructions and holding his hands above his head. According to witnesses, police ordered 18-year-old Taizier Griffin to remove his backpack and tasered him when he moved to do so. Griffin collapsed unconscious before being hog-tied by officers and placed in a police van.

Make no mistake, these alarming incidents are the direct result of efforts across the country to criminalize vaping. In the face of overwhelming data against such proposals, politicians push for prohibitions on flavors and other restrictions that exacerbate the over-policing of minority populations while harming public health.

Amidst the ongoing nationwide discussion regarding police brutality and racial equality, the Biden administration is actively taking steps to prohibit menthol cigarettes, a move that would criminalize a product used predominately among black smokers. The move is opposed by civil rights advocates like Al Sharpton and the ACLU flavor prohibitions “disproportionately impact people and communities of color,” and “instigate unconstitutional policing and other negative interactions with local law enforcement.” The Ocean City incidents perfectly illustrate the validity of these concerns.

When Griffin was tased by police, he was subject to more harm than vaping could ever cause. Since 2000, more than 1,000 people have died after being tased by police. A study has found the shock from a taser can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden death. There has not been a single recorded case of a vaper dying from nicotine-containing e-cigarette. Tragically, nine in 10 of those who have died from being tased by police were unarmed, just like Griffin.

It should upset anyone who cares about criminal justice reform that the same politicians who claim to care about repairing the relationship between police and minority communities relentlessly push for restrictions on vaping. In doing so, they ignore the advice of countless medical experts, public health organizations, and civil rights advocates.

Unfortunately, advocating against vaping can be quite profitable thanks to billionaire Mike Bloomberg who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into an effort to influence vaping policy. After receiving funding from Bloomberg, anti-smoking charities that had previously recommended vaping as an alternative to e-cigarettes reversed their claims.

This is the same Bloomberg who enthusiastically pushed stop-and-frisk policies in New York City. During his 12 years as mayor, police stopped and frisked roughly 5 million people, most of whom were young black or brown men. In 2013, a federal judge ruled the policy violated the rights of minorities in New York. It should come as no surprise that Bloomberg’s funding is further contributing to the over-policing of minorities.

Predictably, he enthusiastically supports President Joe Biden’s menthol proposal and claims the move will save hundreds of thousands of lives. Bloomberg should look at analysis from Georgetown University Medical Centre that estimates vaping can save 6.6 million American lives. Vaping is a life-saving invention, not something to be criminalized.

Far too often, interactions between police and people of color, like the ones in Ocean City, result in tragedies. If we as a country are serious about reforming our criminal justice system and reducing racial disparities, we must consider the consequences of public policies. Restrictions on vaping lead to incidents like the disturbing ones this past weekend and prevent smokers from transitioning to a product 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes. There can be no question that they cost lives.

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