San Francisco's E-Cigarette Ban Undermines Public Health in the Name of Protecting It

The city is favoring the most dangerous form of nicotine delivery over a potentially lifesaving alternative.


Yesterday San Francisco became the first major city in the United States to ban the sale of e-cigarettes, a decision that undermines public health in the name of protecting it. Supporters of the new ordinance, which was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, offered two main rationales, both of which sound sensibly cautious but neither of which makes sense after a moment's thought, which apparently was more than San Francisco's supposedly enlightened and progressive leaders could spare.

First, the supervisors worry that e-cigarettes "have not been reviewed by the FDA to determine if they are appropriate for the public health." Neither have conventional cigarettes, which are indisputably much more hazardous and will nevertheless continue to be legally sold by San Francisco merchants. If the supervisors were truly concerned about public health, they would not be favoring a form of nicotine delivery that exposes consumers to the products of tobacco combustion over competing products that do not. They would recognize, as the FDA has, that e-cigarettes offer smokers an alternative that can save their lives by dramatically reducing the toxins and carcinogens they inhale along with nicotine.

Second, the supervisors worry about "the widespread use of e-cigarettes by youth." To prevent underage consumption, they reason, sales to adults must be prohibited. The same logic, of course, applies to combustible cigarettes, alcohol, and any other potentially dangerous product that minors are not legally allowed to buy. Yet with these other products, the supervisors recognize that enforcing the minimum purchase age is a more appropriate response than treating adults like children. The decision to ban e-cigarette sales in the name of limiting youth access is inconsistent not only with the city's treatment of conventional cigarettes and alcoholic beverages but also with the ordinance itself, which allows e-cigarette sales to resume after the products have passed FDA review. The FDA's stamp of approval will not make underage consumption magically disappear.

Nor will San Francisco's ban do anything to mitigate the problem identified at the beginning of the ordinance: the "countless human beings whose lives are forever devastated by the irreparable loss of a loved one caused by tobacco use, and the inevitable rupture of family that follows such a loss." To the contrary, the e-cigarette ban will contribute to that problem by making it harder for smokers to obtain products that deliver nicotine without tobacco or combustion.

"On the face of it, it's ludicrous that we would ban e-cigarettes, but permit the sale of tobacco and cannabis," Steven Schroeder, a professor of health at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times. "It's really smart politics but dubious public health."

University of Michigan tobacco researcher Ken Warner likewise questioned the public health rationale for the e-cigarette ban, noting that increased vaping has been associated with an accelerated decline in smoking. "We have this very big increase in quitting in the U.S.," he told the Times. "We need to keep our eye on the prize, which is the reduction in cigarette smoking. That's what's killing people."

While the ban may be welcomed by middle-class parents worried about adolescent vaping, Schroeder said, it will hurt people with less political influence who could benefit by substituting e-cigarettes for the conventional kind. "Who are the smokers who could benefit?" he said. "They are the downtrodden: the homeless, the HIV positive, substance abusers, prisoners, who have no constituency politically."

Furthermore, relatively affluent smokers can better afford to stock up on e-cigarette pods before the ordinance takes effect in seven months. They will find it easier to evade the ban by ordering e-cigarettes and e-liquid online, a potentially more expensive option that requires a fixed address. (Juul, which is based in San Francisco and accounts for about 70 percent of the market, charges for shipping on orders of less than $50.) Middle-class smokers also can more readily buy e-cigarettes in other cities, since they are more likely to have cars and flexible work schedules.

Although the Times says the e-cigarette ban fits San Francisco's "long history of using ordinances to push progressive causes," there is nothing progressive about it. The ordinance represents the worst sort of "public health" meddling: progressive on its face but regressive in practice, politically appealing but scientifically uninformed, paternalistic yet damaging to the people it supposedly helps, and inimical to the avowed goals of its advocates.

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  1. It’s never been about health. It’s always been about authoritarianism.

  2. It’s all class warfare at this point.

    1. BINGO! If you read the surgeon general’s reports on smoking going all the way back to 1965…one of the only “personality/demographic” characteristics that is consistently correlated with smoking is class. Lower class people smoke, on average, more than middle and upper class people. The insane cigarette taxes in the early 2000s were nothing more than a backdoor way of the middle class taxing the lower class. And this modern day witchhunt against vaping is just a way for the middle class to show its disdain for lower class culture. You can tell this is a culture war issue because the entire argumentation is almost COMPLETELY divorced for rationality and empirical analysis.

  3. Why haven’t they banned the sale of all tobacco products?

    1. Trick question. It’s because of all that sweet sweet tobacco tax.

      1. it’s because poor people smoke. it’s part of the character of the city. e-cigs are gentrifying.

  4. If you smoke, smoking may choke you out. If you usurp government collecting tobacco taxes, a government agent may choke you out.

  5. Andrew Dice Clay said it best in 1990 or so:
    “San Francisco is a place where you can smoke the baloney pony in public but you can’t light up a fucking Marlboro because it offends people”

    Hard to believe that this is the same city that gave us the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and free love-nothing but a bunch of self-righteous assholes now.

  6. I know what this vaper will do when they come for my nicotine. I will switch back to cigarettes and then gladly wait to exhale my last puff. I will not exhale until I am indoors. I didn’t smoke indoors. I was simply breathing.

  7. Why didn’t they ban actual cigarettes? Probably because they don’t want the homeless to riot.

    1. You almost got it – the homeless smoke cheap cigarettes because they can’t afford to vape and it’s just not fair that only the rich get to vape.

  8. First they came for…

    I’m not going to argue the merits or demerits of smoking or vaping. I do find it extraordinarily sad that vapers jumped on the public health bandwagon and threw smokers under the bus in order to promote their agenda, which includes Jacob, who used to advocate for smokers once upon a long time ago. So, while I support anyone’s right to vape freely, I am hardly heartbroken to learn of SF’s ban on selling vaping kit.

    On a personal level, this ban is a little ironic. It was six or seven years ago inside a SF bar when my spouse and I were first introduced to vaping pot instead of nicotine. We had been dual users for quite a few years before then.

    I’ve never bought the argument that vaping saves lives. Extends them a few years? OK, sure. Perhaps. But no one who is dying, from smoking-related causes or otherwise, will be “saved” by vaping. Bill Hicks said it best: “Non-smokers die every day.”

    More to the point, all the people who I work with that switched to vaping, without exception, eventually went right back to the dirty fags. We had had quite a collection of vapers for a time, and now we have none again. I suppose smoking tobacco cigarettes got the job done a lot better, but I’ve never asked them. Maybe it was because buying all of that vaping kit was costing as much or more than buying a pack of smokes…

    1. I switched to vaping from smoking cigarettes starting about 10 years ago-it took me a few years but I found I didn’t like the taste of traditional cigarettes as much, and the e-cig models got better. If they ever ban e-cigs here, I probably will go back to smoking because why not?

    2. I vaped for five years until eventually quitting it as well and I know at least twenty people who still vape or quit altogether through vaping. Like anything else it all comes down to one’s own self discipline and desire to quit.

    3. While I have occasionally been a victim to falling off the wagon, I always go back to just vaping. Its been years. My sinus issues are gone. My lungs feel better. I save a ton of money. I also don’t stink.

      The experience I have with others that vape is they stick to it. At work now we have only a couple of smokers with a lot of vapers. The experience I’ve seen with other folks that have tried other cessation products is they all with only one exception started smoking again or never quit.

  9. Can they actually prevent an online retailer from sending product by UPS/FedEx/USPS to someone in San Francisco? Seems like an interstate commerce issue.

    1. SF is not much bigger than a postage stamp; they can’t stop anyone from walking across the city boundary and buying vapes in Daly City, and it’s pretty much guaranteed there will be a store-front opening within steps of the city line, if there isn’t one already.

  10. BTW, one of the more obnoxious Supes was blathering on about how virtuous she was in voting to outlaw vapes, and then, announcing (with horror) that the things are currently sold ‘without any regulations at all!!!!!’.

  11. “there is nothing progressive about it” Au contraire, there’s everything “progressive” about it. Progressives are fucking nanny state Nazi assholes.

    1. This.

      The core progressive belief is that government can make society better.

      The mindset that seeks to ban vaping is no different than that of the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that lead directly to prohibition.

      Fuck all progressives.

      1. Having served in the government for 30 years, anyone who thinks the government needs to be involved in issues like this is a fucking idiot. The government is a 10,000 pound gorilla that needs to stick to pure public goods (e.g. National Defense), not nonsense like any dumbass progressive idea.

  12. What’s to stop users from simply going to Burlingame, Milbrae, Berkeley, or Oakland for the e-cigarettes. Just like dry counties don’t stop beer, banning e-cigs in San Fransisco from stepping over the county line to buy their shit. And it’s not like a Texas dry county where it might be an hour drive to the next county, San Fransisco is pretty small geographically and has tons of mass transit, roads, bridges, and bike lanes to neighboring counties.

    1. I remember when smoking was first banned in bars 15-20 years ago in a few “progressive” cities and everyone was like”I will just go to the next town to have a cigarette with my beer.” What ended up happening was the other towns, counties, and eventually states soon copied them. That is the MO for these people. Look for NYC to be the next place to ban, then your town will soon be next.

      1. non-smoking bars are awesome

  13. I must disagree with the premise that this is not ‘Progressive’. As Progressivism is practiced, this is entirely typical; it isn’t about public health – the Public Health case for banning smoking rests on secondhand smoke hysteria, not science – but on a fairly characteristic reaction of Politically Left busybodies to any sign that those goddamned peasants aren’t doing as they are told.

    In short; a temper tantrum.

    Not that such tantrums are characteristic solely of the Left. Busybodies of all kinds throw them, which is why the founding father wrote the constitution in such a way as to limit the power of the State…and also (sadly) why many of the founders were weaseling around those restrictions before the ink was dry.

    But just as the late Victorian era was a time when (ostensibly) Christian Right busybodies ran rampant, so this modern era is full of Progressive Left busybodies doing the same.


    1. You are correct, but leftwing lunatics have polluted the term “progressive” just like they did “liberal”. Because “Marxist Asshole” doesn’t market well.

    2. I would clarify your comment, Schofield, by saying it is primarily based on intellectual and finanical class-ism but especially racism and sexism when it comes to menthols, perpetuated by academics who genuinely hate smokers, smoking (particularly when women smoke) and, by extension, the evil Big Tobacco. Intelligent, educated people like them don’t smoke, they tell us. Only the peasants (as you put it) smoke the vile weed. It’s been like this since tobacco made its way from the New World to Europe.

  14. First, the supervisors worry that e-cigarettes “have not been reviewed by the FDA to determine if they are appropriate for the public health.”


  15. what about hookahs? are they going to ban poor brown peoples cultural customs? If not maybe people can jsut get big back backs and with hookahs and drag them them onto MUNI etc, …??? Business opportunity?

  16. omg can we get an edit feature up in this bitch?

  17. This is so astonishingly ridiculous it speaks for itself.

  18. Banners gotta ban something.

    I doubt it’s smart politics though — people hate cigarette smoke, but e-cigs are barely noticeable.

  19. Demonstrating, yet again, that drugs are the anomaly on both the left and right as far as respecting one’s right to inhale/ingest/inject/whatever things into your body. Compare to transfats, salt, tobacco, energy drinks, sugar, and now vapors. Come to think of it, drug bans originated in the Progressive Era as well. The only apparent reason for drugs to be the odd man out is their association with the 60s counterculture. If drugs had never been banned and weren’t associated with hippies, you’d see prominent Democrats demanding congressional hearings into the evils of Big Cannabis.

  20. Live and let live – you’ll soon see the drastic rise in teenage smoking so they can ban cigarettes outright – which is likely the plan. Start w/ vape, then cigs citywide – but only fine regular citizens who work, not the homeless, because that’s where the money is. A city who hands out needles for heroin acting worried about vaping is blatantly ridiculous and anyone who believes their crap is insane and shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

  21. Can the left never have a coherent stance? Banning e-cigs… And pushing to legalize weed.. WTF.

    I’m in favor of legal weed, but I’m also in favor of e-cigs. They are just so illogical and unhinged it blows my mind.

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