When Harm Reduction is a Crime: Tobacco, E-Cigarettes, and the World’s Most Unnecessary Black Market

2-Part Longform Special Feature! (Part 2 here)- By Mark

This website is (loosely) themed around “Security and the 4th Industrial Revolution.” We write about mind-blowing things technology increasingly empowers people to build, make, and do for good or ill. We talk about post-industrial technology’s applications for terrorism, weapons, smuggling, drugs, war, crime, and all kinds of dark shit. We also cover beneficial stuff people are doing with the same technologies and freedoms to innovate. We cover these issues because they’re interesting, and because they force us to reconsider many traditional assumptions about how policy and government are supposed to work. We also cover them because they’re important: people live and die, and liberty is protected or undermined, by our decisions on new technologies.

But today let’s forget about guns, terrorism, masks that fool facial recognition, counterfeit art, fake drug-testing dongs, cartel tunnels, and narco-submarines. Let’s forget about those things because compared to today’s topic, they barely rate. That’s right. Almost everything we get worked up about as a society is, in pure scale of mortality, bullshit compared to this.

I’m talking about how post-industrial society will handle the best solution ever offered for one of the deadliest problems of modern times.

I’m talking about tobacco smoking and electronic cigarettes.

First, some context. Tobacco-related disease killed more people in the 20th century than World Wars I and II combined. About 5-6 million people around the world die every year from tobacco-related conditions. In the US, nearly half a million people annually from tobacco-related disease. The WHO estimates that, at this rate, smoking will cause the premature deaths of a billion people during the 21st century.

How does this compare to the other things we periodically freak out about? Traffic fatalities in the US spiked in 2015, but tobacco still killed 12.5 times as many Americans. Guns? No comparison. According to some estimates, guns kill about 365,000 people globally in an average year, including war, crime, accidents, suicide, and self defense. So in a typical year, tobacco kills about 24% more people just in America than guns kill in the whole world. [i] In 2013, 33,636 Americans died from gunshots (with the largest proportion, as always, suicide). Tobacco killed 14 times as many Americans as all gun-related causes. If we only count homicides, tobacco kills almost 43 times as many Americans. Accidents? Please, it’s not even close. Tobacco kills 950 times as many people as gun accidents in the United States.

What about terrorism? Well, in a few countries it’s not good, but still pales in comparison to much more banal risks. In 2015, 28,328 people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide, and 6,924 (or about 24%) were perpetrators themselves.[ii] So terrorist attacks killed 17 times fewer people in the world last year than die from tobacco in the US alone. Terrorism within the US? The reality is almost ridiculous to compare. 121 people were killed by terrorism in America between 2002-2015,[iii] so tobacco kills about 4000 times as many Americans per year as were killed by terrorism in the 13 years after 9/11.

Drug overdoses have been pretty bad in the US lately (especially since the tightening of pharmaceutical prescriptions on opioid painkillers sent many addicts to street heroin…). What about that? In 2014, 47,055 Americans died of drug overdose, meaning that tobacco still killed 10 times as many Americans even with the heroin epidemic we’ve been freaking out about.

In other words, annual tobacco mortality in America is four times greater than car accidents, drug overdose, guns, and terrorism put together. And let’s not even compare cigarettes to cannabis, ok?

But here’s the thing. Tobacco is a legal product and a major cash crop in many economies. Cigarettes are ridiculously bad for health, but smoking is also a personal choice that happens to be very addictive. And here’s something else that’s important to know about cigarettes: they’re awesome.


In moderation, of course… (Source: India Times)

If you never smoked, you’ll never understand. Once you’re hooked, cigarettes are stimulating or relaxing. They help you wake up. They help you get to sleep. They’re great after a meal or on break from a few hours of hard work. They’re perfect with coffee. They’re social (with the dwindling population of other smokers), but they also provide a handy excuse for a change of scenery and a break from socializing. They’re not widely perceived to be cool like they once were, but they’re still kind of artsy and transgressive. Lots of people are turned off by smoking nowadays, but if you do smoke, you might think somebody is a little cooler or more attractive just because they smoke too. If you write for a living (or need to cram for an exam), or otherwise do stuff that revolves around alertness and sustained attention, just ask any old timey journalist, long haul trucker, or pre-2000s college student… strong coffee and strong cigarettes were the original Adderall.

I know this because I smoked on and off for years, and many of my friends did too. Good tobacco, good brands, strong blends, fewer additives when possible. I rolled my own for a while till the tax hikes got ridiculous. Never that slim “ultra-light” bullshit. Who are you even fooling with that nonsense? And I don’t blame the farmers and tobacco companies who sold me exactly what I wanted. They know they’re going the way of the dinosaurs, and they’re worried, but I don’t hold it against them for doing what any company tries to do: market their product to people who want to buy it.

This is an industry that’s been around for hundreds of years. The first profit-making farms in Virginia weren’t cotton or corn, they were tobacco. When our soldiers were living and dying like rats in the unspeakable hell of the Great War’s trenches, or the horrifying freeze of the Bulge or Chosin, or the combined physical hardship and psychological mindfuckery of jungle warfare in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, living long enough to roll one more cigarette might have been a significant motivator. In a less dramatic sense, the guy who shingles your roof, fixes your car, or mows your lawn, and the lady who cleans your hotel room or assembles your iPhone, may be just waiting for that cigarette break.

At its worst I smoked nearly two packs a day, but not anymore. I am now among the fast-growing population of Americans who “vape.” Vaping is such an attractive alternative to smoking that the reasons barely need to be repeated here: it is very safe to assume that vaping is a lower health risk than smoking. It doesn’t stink up one’s clothes or house. Many smokers find that they enjoy it more. Vaping subjectively feels better and less unhealthy. Vapers don’t cough like smokers. Vaping poses less risk and bother to 3rd parties. It generally costs less, it’s more convenient, it carries less stigma, and even my doctor gave me a thumbs up and told me (off the record) that it was a good move.


In moderation, of course… (Source)

E-cigarettes may help people reduce or eliminate nicotine addiction over time. Like many who’ve made the switch, I’ve become less nicotine-dependent: I still use a nicotine solution, but I’ve decreased my nicotine consumption without any trouble. The “nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs)” and other solutions pushed by pharmaceutical companies: gums, patches, nasal sprays, and pills with bizarre psychological side-effects, just don’t do the job. Numerous studies agree. Most “stop smoking” products just suck. They can’t possibly compare to a cigarette for a real smoker.

The all suck except for vaping. Vaping succeeds where these other products fail because vaping is so similar to smoking, and nearly as satisfying. (Perhaps more so after a while). I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore, and don’t even miss them. So long as I have access to a good electronic cigarette and good “e-liquid,” I will probably never buy cigarettes again.

And here’s the most interesting thing: I never planned to quit smoking. I didn’t switch to e-cigarettes because my doctor told me I desperately needed to quit. I didn’t switch because I’d tried all the other “stop smoking” products to no avail. I didn’t switch because an increasing number of righteous citizens gave me dirty looks in public (though this did seem to be happening…). I had never tried to quit smoking cigarettes, and wasn’t planning to. I switched because I wanted to see what all the vaping hype was about, and I ended up liking it more, feeling better, and paying less for the privilege.

A tale of unexceptional inspiration, but what’s it got to do with technology, security, and modern DIY? Here’s where a harm reduction issue becomes a security and DIY issue: Tobacco has been a black market product forever. If we’re not careful, e-cigarettes and nicotine solution will be too.

In a world where increasing numbers of people can make an increasing range of stuff, heavily restricting e-cigarettes won’t just slow the emergence of a promising and less harmful alternative, it will encourage shady foreign manufacturers, modern DIYers, smugglers, and illegal tobacco growers to produce and trade their own tobacco, e-cigarettes, and nicotine solutions. Like many black market goods, much of this stuff will involve inferior purity and safety. Displacement of tobacco and nicotine production to illegal markets may also bring violence that doesn’t occur in the legitimate trade. The people who will profit most will be even worse than our common caricature of the evil tobacco executive: drug trafficking syndicates and terrorist groups.

How do we know this? Because it’s already happened.

Cigarette smuggling is a longstanding scam, and it’s gotten more lucrative and sophisticated over time. This report from the US State Department describes cigarette smuggling as a “low-risk, high-reward criminal activity; traffickers can make millions, with little risk of detection or harsh punishments.” Like most reports on cigarette smuggling, it describes the trade as “a sizeable and dependable revenue stream for organized crime,” with annual tax losses in the US ranging between $2.95-$6.92 billion, and in the EU ranging between €7.8-€10.5. The OECD Financial Action Task Force (FATF) describes “tens of billions” in illegal profits, and characterizes the illicit tobacco trade as a “significant global money laundering and terror financing threat.” In that report, multiple sources confirm that “high taxes acts as one of the incentives for illicit trade in tobacco to occur.”

Governments have always been in a weird spot with tobacco: on one hand it kills its consumers and imposes huge costs on healthcare systems.  On the other hand, it’s an addictive product that governments can absolutely tax the hell out of. Of course, nowadays the taxes always involve a public health angle: increased cigarette taxes are usually justified as a deterrent to smoking and a source of health care funding to counteract tobacco’s harms. However, governments can also derive huge discretionary revenue from cigarette tax, and may not want cigarettes to go away overnight. It’s commonly accepted that tobacco tax hikes lead to reduced smoking, but there’s also some research suggesting that only large tax increases have a significant effect on smoking rates, and that some populations don’t reduce their smoking in response to higher tax.

So we want to reduce smoking, except maybe not too much or too fast, because there’s a lot of money in it. The number of smokers may decrease (and in developed countries, has decreased consistently for decades), but we also know that a certain percentage of the population don’t want to quit, and aren’t going to quit unless cigarettes become totally unavailable, which they won’t.

Whether to encourage smokers to quit, or to bring in the same tax revenues as the good ol’ days when more doctors smoked Chesterfields, governments screw the dwindling population of dedicated smokers with ever-increasing taxes. Except we know these taxes don’t cause everyone to quit, and we don’t necessarily want them all to quit right away, because then the private tobacco economy suffers and so do government revenues. Even big pharma gets to be the good guy making money on crappy nicotine replacement products. It’s a shit show where everybody makes money except smokers.


Sure, more doctors smoked Chesterfield, but more Santa’s smoked Lucky! (Source)

Like any addictive drug, tobacco is an awesome source of revenue if you can trade it illegally. High taxes incentivize illegal trade, especially when the product involves persistent demand and is easy to traffic. The illicit tobacco trade takes many forms: you can steal them from legitimate supplies and resell them on the cheap, you can purchase them legally where tax is low and then resell in high-tax jurisdictions, you can counterfeit name-brands by purchasing cheap tobacco and re-packaging as a good brand, or you can develop the whole tobacco supply chain and become an unlicensed full-scale illicit manufacturer. They’re all pretty good. Whichever way you go, you’re in the money.

As taxes increase, counterfeits increase. As counterfeiting increases, it comes to dominate some markets entirely. If you’ve ever smoked “name brand” cigarettes in South America, Africa, or Southeast Asia, you probably noticed a lot of them weren’t quite right. Even back home, you may have noticed some reputable-looking cigarettes aren’t so great. No worries, those were probably just some knockoffs ridden with cadmium, lead, dead flies, mold, insect eggs, and human feces. But who can beat these prices, amiright? Big tobacco may sell a toxic product, but at least they’ve got manufacturing standards. High cost drives consumers to products that somehow manage to be worse than normal cigarettes. Often, the consumer doesn’t even save much money: shady wholesalers and retailers get cheap knockoffs but may only offer slight discounts. The FATF says consumers gladly pay for cigarettes at only slight markdowns, and the product seems more legitimate if it’s not dirt cheap.

As the tobacco industry falls out of favor, their products are taxed more, and they lose even more money to smugglers offering cheap knockoffs. Cigarette smuggling is huge in the UK, and getting ridiculous in Australia. In the EU, taxes keep rising as the number of smokers keeps falling, but smuggling and counterfeiting are bigger than ever. In the US, we’ve got vastly different tax rates between states, and that’s nothing but opportunity for smugglers. In wealthy countries, fewer cigarettes are being consumed, but more of them are smuggled and counterfeit. Global smoking rates have decreased, but in much of the developing world it remains popular or is actually rising. We can blame big tobacco for responding to a dwindling clientele in wealthy countries by bolstering markets in developing nations, but developing countries also have huge counterfeit cigarette operations that undercut big tobacco. Lots of these knockoffs get smuggled to the lucrative high-tax markets of the developed world.

It’s organized crime, drug cartels, shady corrupt manufacturers, and terror groups making a lot of the this money. Everybody knows La Cosa Nostra ran the cigarette game in the US for decades. The Provisional IRA ran cigarette smuggling to raise funds for operations. Nowadays, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah have made some good money: cigarette smuggling generates nice revenue but isn’t terribly high risk. The public isn’t freaking out about counterfeit cigarettes, police don’t prioritize it, lots of smokers want cheaper supplies and engage in petty smuggling themselves. Penalties usually aren’t that serious. Oftentimes they’ll slap you harder for the money laundering and tax evasion than the contraband cigarettes.


Just think how many cigarette-filled tires you can fit in a shipping container that probably won’t be X-rayed! (Source)

Cigarettes are not difficult to counterfeit or smuggle, and it’s pretty obvious why people do it. Could it happen with e-cigarettes? At first glance, it’s hard to understand why. What’s the incentive? E-cigarettes and their materials are also a bit more complicated, and they seem more difficult to produce on a DIY basis. Why would an illicit market for e-cigarettes emerge, and how would it work?

It’s all about incentives. As more smokers turn to vaping, that market will continue to grow at the expense of legal cigarettes, tobacco black markets, and pharma-dominated “nicotine replacement.” Vaping consumers don’t want to switch back to traditional cigarettes, but they also don’t like big pharma’s “nicotine replacement” products. Vapers have strong incentives to maintain access to e-cigarettes and nicotine fluid.

Sound farfetched? Not really. In one survey, pollsters asked 9000 American e-cigarette users what they would do if their products were no longer legally available. 73% said they’d stock up on e-cigarette materials before a ban kicked in, 70% said they’d buy from unlicensed vendors, 66% said they’d import from overseas, 65% said they’d make their own e-liquids and vaping equipment, and 17.5% said they’d bite the bullet and buy FDA-approved products. Only 6.2% said they’d stop vaping, and 15% said they’d start smoking cigarettes again. So, consumers themselves are saying that a suppression of the legal vaping industry would incentivize a black market more than it would accomplish anything else.

Why would this even happen? Vaping is a safer alternative to an increasingly demonized traditional industry, so why pick a fight to slow down the safer alternative and why keep hiking taxes on regular tobacco (and incentivizing smuggling) when we know we can continue to reduce smoking through education alone without trying to “nudge” consumer choices? Same reasons as ever: money and bureaucratic inertia!

Vaping is a classic example of disruptive technology. Tobacco may be bad, but it’s the best kind of bad: you’ve got a well-established industry producing and selling it, a well-established regulatory and tax system to extract government revenue from it, a well-established pharmaceutical sub-market devoted to “medical” alternatives, and a well-established subculture of lobbying groups and research institutions promoting predictable anti-tobacco policies for decades. Everything was great until vaping had to come along and ruin the bottom line. So, the tobacco and “nicotine replacement” lobbies have both been slowing the growth of e-cigarettes while they figure out how to extract revenue from this disruptive new industry before it kills their cash-cow.

One way  to slow down e-cigs is to undermine demand by hyping studies suggesting they are no better, or maybe worse, than traditional cigarettes. If you follow the media coverage, you’ve probably heard of “popcorn lung,” or the shocking levels of formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor. You’ve definitely heard about batteries exploding because it seems to make national news every time.

While research finding some risk in e-cigarettes is no doubt valid, a lot of the alarmist stuff is misleading. It’s true that some e-cigarette flavoring has chemicals that contribute to “popcorn lung,” but the hysterical media coverage didn’t mention that traditional cigarettes involve 100 to 750 times the exposure to the same chemicals. Same thing with the hype about formaldehyde: the study responsible for that scare was performed under unrealistic conditions. Nevertheless, it concluded that e-cigarettes may pose 15 times the cancer risk as normal cigarettes. The method was so bad that 40 researchers urged the conclusions be retracted. Subsequent research performed under realistic conditions found that e-cigarettes emitted considerably less formaldehyde and related carcinogens as traditional cigarettes.

Even the hype about exploding batteries is mostly a red herring. There’s no comparison to the fire hazard posed by normal cigarettes. The National Fire Protection Association identified about 40 incidents of exploding e-cigarette batteries between 2009-2015, and nobody killed. Contrast that with 90,000 fires and 540 fire deaths caused by tobacco smoking in America just in 2011.

Alarmist coverage had impacts on consumer opinion. It keeps many smokers smoking, and supports calls for prohibitive e-cigarette regulation (which benefits big pharma). In 2015, Public Health England reviewed the scientific research on e-cigarettes, and reinforced  the Royal College of Physicians’ earlier estimate that e-cigarettes are probably about 95% safer than normal cigarettes. Public Health England also reviewed some of the scare stories, and found that they:

“…may be having a significant impact on public perception of EC safety. In the US, 82% of responders believed that vaping is safer than smoking in 2010, but the figure has shrunk to 51% in 2014.”

While negative press has undercut public perception of vaping, it hasn’t stopped consumers from trying it out. And lots of smokers who do try vaping, become former smokers. In 2013 and 2014, studies in the Lancet and Addiction found better quit rates for smokers using e-cigarettes than those using pharmaceutical nicotine replacement. In 2014, the CDC found that at least 9 million Americans vaped consistently, more than half of smokers who had recently quit used e-cigarettes, and nearly a quarter of former smokers currently vape. The same year, CDC Director Tom Frieden was still making media appearances blasting the “misconception” that e-cigarettes are a good avenue for harm reduction. Instead, he urged the public to use “FDA approved medicines” like nicotine replacement patches and gums, which he described inaccurately as tripling the likelihood of successfully quitting.

So we’ve got research suggesting that e-cigarettes are considerably safer than cigarettes. We’ve also got some evidence that consumers who want to reduce or quit nicotine may actually do better with e-cigarettes than with the nicotine replacement products marketed by big-pharma. But there’s a problem: most of the successful e-cigarette companies are not aligned with the tobacco industry, and the big pharmaceutical companies marketing FDA-approved “nicotine replacement” products stand to lose big if e-cigarettes outperform them. The vapor industry is composed of many small and medium-sized businesses and DIYers. Though the tobacco industry has purchased some of the bigger e-cigarette brands in recent years, a lot of the most successful vaporizer designs and “e-liquids” are from independent brands and mom-and-pop vape shops. These are not the same players who have dominated the tobacco game for decades.

That’s a recipe for hasty regulations to protect vested interests. The FDA recently generated tremendous controversy by passing “deeming” regulations which would substantially slow growth in the vaping industry by imposing regulatory costs that will knock most of the small players out of business and potentially kill 15,000 jobs. This would give the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries enough time to establish a new quasi-monopoly on e-cigarettes by putting all e-cigarettes and liquids through prohibitively expensive FDA trials. The big fish get to form a victorious cartel over a rapidly-growing consumer base which independent entrepreneurs did all the work to establish.  The small fish get breaded and fried.

The language of the FDA’s proposed regulation is so expansive as to be logically incomprehensible, but that’s the point. The drafting agency is the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, which just happens to be run by former GlaxoSmithKline lobbyist Mitch Zeller. GlaxoSmithKline is one of the largest manufacturers of FDA-approved nicotine replacement products. For years, Zeller’s lobbying firm has tried to keep less-harmful tobacco and nicotine products like snus and e-cigarettes off the market. This leaves the tobacco field open for big tobacco companies already cozy with the FDA. They continue selling their increasingly taxed and regulated cigarettes while FDA pretends to get “tough on tobacco.” “Tough” regulations throttle big-cig’s small-fry competitors while ensuring continued tax revenue from the big brands that survive the regulatory costs. The same system leaves big-pharma as the only alternative to smoking for the nicotine-dependent. Some bedfellows aren’t so strange when you see where the money goes.

The proposed regulations are optimized to encompass virtually all e-cigarette activity, allowing FDA to suppress virtually any innovation by small business. Under the regulations, e-cigarettes are a “tobacco product” if they are capable of accepting liquid that could contain nicotine, even if the device is not marketed or used for nicotine at all. Liquid containing no nicotine is a “tobacco product” if it can be accepted by a device that could theoretically also vaporize nicotine. “Naturally extracted tobacco” flavoring would obviously be a tobacco product even if it contains no nicotine. Nicotine that isn’t derived from tobacco is also a “tobacco product,” because reasons. All components of “e-liquid” are separately deemed safe for human use by the FDA, but putting them together makes them a “tobacco product” even if none of the ingredients are derived from tobacco.

Each slightly different formulation of the same handful of e-liquid ingredients would need to undergo a separate FDA trial with fees around a million dollars. Theoretically, a flavoring that contains no nicotine but which is commonly used for e-fluid could also be deemed a “tobacco product,” essentially allowing the FDA to throttle the flavor industry as broadly or selectively as desired. “Open” system e-cigarettes which users can load with any kind of vaporizable liquid (with or without nicotine), would be prohibited. Approved vaporizers would need to be “closed” systems that only accept prepackaged cartridges and nicotine/flavor formulations that have each separately passed FDA trials. The cost of passing these cartridges through trials virtually guarantees that they’d only be sold by large companies, even though the “open” liquid technology is well-proven, more desired by consumers, more affordable, and easy to DIY.

This proposal is so wacky and overbroad that it’s unlikely to stand. There is a growing political backlash, and speculation that a Trump administration will basically gut the regulations. In Interview with a Vape-pire,”the companion piece to this post, I spoke with a bunch of vapor industry professionals who were actually pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. One reason for their nonchalance was that they understood FDA’s overambitious regulations will need to be walked back. If not, FDA will face the obvious criticism that they are suppressing e-cigarettes for the benefit of the tobacco and pharma industries at the cost of thousands of jobs, hundreds of small businesses, and potentially millions of lives. Another reason these vaping aficionados weren’t too worried, is that they understood just how impossible it will be to stop DIY e-cigarettes in a post-industrial world.

If e-cigarettes and nicotine liquids are heavily restricted, there would be numerous avenues to circumvent bans, and many vape aficionados would do it. Lots of casual consumers will stockpile equipment and e-liquid ingredients, and many will continue ordering devices and liquids online from abroad. Customs services may seize some, but catching all imports through the mail will be impossible. Some “dark web” denizens will probably find better and more reliable sources. Those folks might make decent money reselling.

But with vaping,  enforcement vulnerabilities aren’t just limited to the typical shipments from abroad. Local DIY would play a big role, and this activity would be even harder to stop.

Vaping is a DIY-friendly activity. There are already millions of vaping consumers around the world, and there are lots of industry workers and individual DIYers with the know-how to make devices and e-liquids. Building one’s own vaping device is common practice among vaping aficionados. Hundreds, if not thousands of videos and tutorials on the internet show the aspiring DIY vaper how to make relatively simple “box mods.” These can be constructed and customized with simple multi-use electronic materials. A minimalist build requires a boxlike enclosure, a “510” connector, voltage regulator, a button, a battery holder, batteries, 14 gauge stranded copper wire, and some heat shrink or electrical tape. These components can be assembled with tools no more complex than a drill and soldering iron. Fancier mods may involve other components like LEDs/resistors, electronic chips, extra switches to act as a “safety” to prevent accidental heating, etc…  but the overall engineering and assembly remains remarkably simple. Most high school kids could make a DIY vaporizer with decent instructions, and decent instructions are all over the internet.


Sure yeah, totally DIY unfriendly subculture right here… (Source: Vapor Underground users)

It’s easy to order DIY vape “kits,” and a ban would encourage many consumers to try. Shutting down the distributors of prepackaged kits may not be so easy: the materials are multi-use, so they can be applied to any kind of electrical hobby project. Bans may force some distributors to re-label their products to avoid falling afoul of legal definitions, but all the parts will still be available in kits under a new name or as separately purchased components. Instructions on which parts to buy and how to assemble them will probably remain legal and openly post-able on the internet. Censoring this information would result in lawsuits, and many people would continue to circulate the information in spite of any ban.

This is pretty simple technology. Unless we want to declare Radio Shack a terrorist organization, anyone who is interested in making their own DIY vaporizer will be able to do it. Sure, not every vapor consumer will have the patience or interest in making their own, but many will have a few bucks to purchase one from a local DIY kid who can churn out 15 per day from dad’s basement. As with any black market, displacing the activity to DIYers and illegal resellers will slow the positive innovations that legitimate industry would have made, and will ensure that more of the devices will be poorly constructed and potentially-dangerous to use. Either way, vaporizers aren’t going away.

“E-liquid” is the bigger question, and it’s also a greater nexus to organized crime. Getting good liquid for the vaporizers is the real issue. E-liquid contains few ingredients. Typical fluid involves propylene glycol or vegetable glycerin, flavoring, and liquid nicotine. (Though many consumers do not even use a nicotine solution). The only significant regulatory leverage point is nicotine. Everything else is non-toxic, multi-use, and freely available. Propylene glycol, or “PG”  is commonly used as a solvent and food preservative. It’s used in fog machines, artificial tears, and as a non-toxic medium for many medications including asthma inhalers. It can be bought legally in bulk.

Glycerin is even easier to get- it’s on the shelf at your local pharmacy or supermarket. The supermarket version probably isn’t as pure as the commercial versions legitimate vapor shops use, but it will suffice. Ditto for flavoring: there’s an incredible variety of natural and artificial flavorings freely available. If you’re a real tobacco aficionado looking to make the switch to vaping, “Naturally Extracted Tobacco” flavorings can be purchased from a legitimate company, or made at home quite easily. These provide the most realistic tobacco flavor for e-cigarettes, though they may also include more of the bad chemicals contained in tobacco.

So, the one meaningful limitation to the DIY vaping supply chain is nicotine. Nicotine is a natural pesticide produced by tobacco and many other vegetables, including potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. Tobacco contains the most nicotine by far, but other vegetables have enough that your insurer may accuse you of being a smoker if you’re really into eggplant. Nicotine has interesting properties. Unlike the other ingredients for e-liquid, pure nicotine is a pretty serious poison. It can be absorbed through the skin, so safe handling and protective gloves are necessary. In the small doses enjoyed by smokers and vapers, it’s stimulating or relaxing, aids memory and concentration, and may reduce risk of Parkinson’s disease. In effect it’s fairly similar to caffeine, and its harms are mostly related to its traditional delivery method: inhalation of burnt tobacco. In large doses, nicotine makes you dead. Pure nicotine is regulated in most countries: it used to be common in agricultural pesticides, but has been largely discontinued for that purpose.

In many US states, pure nicotine solution can be purchased from suppliers for mixing e-cigarette liquids. The clientele for these purchases is mostly legitimate vapor shops, but individual consumers can buy nicotine in many states. Lots of DIYers do this because they enjoy making their own e-liquids. Some states are now making it illegal to purchase nicotine as a private consumer, but it’s still not terribly difficult to get pure pharmaceutical-grade nicotine in the United States. This may change, so step one for many vapor consumers will be to stockpile as much liquid nicotine as possible. Because the level of nicotine needed for vapor consumption is actually very low, a couple gallons would be a lifetime supply for many consumers. Likewise, improved vaporizers decrease the level of nicotine necessary to achieve the same satisfaction. As technology improves, the need for black market nicotine may actually decrease. Nicotine’s shelf life is limited, but it can last a few years stored under the right conditions. Some solutions are engineered for longer shelf life.

Because nicotine is really the only targetable area of the DIY e-cigarette supply chain, regulators may be tempted to go after it. This may suppress the availability of pure industrial nicotine for casual consumers, but it will also incentivize black market production and trade. Preventing small-time production of nicotine would be extremely difficult because nicotine is extractable from tobacco. Regardless of e-cigarette policies, tobacco remains legal virtually everywhere, and can be bought in considerable quantity.

In the US (and even Canada), it’s legal to grow tobacco for personal use. The primary regulatory issues revolve around production and processing for commercial sale. If you’re doing stuff that qualifies as “commercial,” a series of incredibly complicated regulations and taxes kick in, but growing tobacco for personal use is generally unregulated. American DIYers have  experimented with independent tobacco growing as taxes increase. Yields can be pretty good: growers can get about 2000 lbs of tobacco per acre, and a pack-a-day habit translates to about 17 lbs of tobacco per year. So, if you can grow an acre of tobacco, you’re theoretically providing enough tobacco for about 115 people one year, or one person for 115 years. One guy in Ohio started growing his own tobacco on a 3/4 acre plot, saying “…if I get a thousand pounds, it will be good for 50 something years.”

Tobacco grows best in USDA zones 8-11, which is why the south-central and southeast US are the real Marlboro country. But tobacco is also grown successfully in colder climates, and can be green-housed or grown indoors. There are multiple online fora where home tobacco enthusiasts trade tips. As always, black markets create incentives. Australia outlawed all legal tobacco cultivation in 2006, but now they’re seizing illegal tobacco grows with hundreds of thousands of plants, in addition to all the “chop chop” smuggled in.

DIYers also trade tips and tutorials on how to extract nicotine for use in e-cigarettes. Most of the home processes involve simple distillation. There are dozens, if not hundreds of videos and instructions floating around the internet, so we’ll not link to them here. Home distillation can produce nicotine with simple equipment, but this “nic-shine” is impure, lower in nicotine content, and contaminated with a lot of the other junk that is in tobacco. Nevertheless, it may suffice for many consumers, and is already used by aficionados in countries where nicotine or e-liquid are restricted.

To get pure nicotine from tobacco requires actual chemistry, but we’re talking about high school skills if you’ve got the materials. I found one textbook online to which I shall not link. It describes a pretty straightforward process for getting nicotine from tobacco by dissolving the tobacco in NaOH (aka “lye”), and extracting through ether. After evaporating the ether, nicotine oil is what’s left. This can also be turned into pure nicotine crystals, though this requires picric acid and a few more steps. At Making Crimes we can’t exactly recommend doing any of this stuff, but we specifically recommend against the picric acid trick, since picric acid is explosive, watched by the government, and whenever police discover it they have to call up the bomb disposal unit. Just because something can be made DIY doesn’t make it a great idea.

But that’s the trouble with creating black market incentives. It’s basically impossible to totally repress nicotine without totally destroying the tobacco industry, and we know that won’t happen anytime soon. If nicotine is made unavailable to e-cigarette consumers through legitimate avenues, many will start getting it through informal means. These illicit avenues are much worse than simply letting the e-cigarette industry develop, improve, and continue to get folks off traditional cigarettes in a safer way. And here’s the beauty part: there will still be business for legal tobacco farmers because agricultural tobacco is still the best source for the nicotine that goes into safer e-cigarettes.

Drug cartels and organized crime certainly have the wherewithal to divert, steal, and manufacture nicotine, except they’ll do it without any care for purity or product safety. They’ll be extracting nicotine from industrial pesticides and repackaging for human consumption, they’ll be setting up clandestine labs full of hazardous materials, they’ll dilute nicotine solution with cheaper garbage chemicals, and they’ll be running drums of nicotine across borders like they already do with other drugs.

Criminalization will encourage illegal tobacco cultivation, and turn a formerly peaceful and legitimate tobacco economy into a violent one. Obviously, we can give up on child-resistant packaging at that point. Individual DIYers will continue producing their own e-cigarettes, e-fluid, and nicotine, but it won’t be as pure as the stuff produced by legitimate industry, and there will inevitably be some fires and explosions from poorly-made vaporizers and poorly-performed nicotine extractions. In the meantime, fewer smokers will be making the switch to a less harmful product that promises to save billions of dollars in public health costs and prevent millions of premature deaths.

Do we really want to encourage the world’s most unnecessary black market? In the next few years, governments will decide how to handle e-cigarettes, and we’ll all get to see the results. One thing is certain: in a post-industrial world, we can’t suppress one of the oldest, most common, and most damaging human addictions. The real question is whether we will allow the responsible development of new technologies that drastically reduce its harms.


[i] International Action Network on Small Arms, “A Thousand People Die Every Day,” 2006: Bringing the Global Gun Crisis under Control (London: International Action Network on Small Arms, July 26, 2006): 1.

[ii] Cue smallest violin for this particular sub-population…

[iii] Calculated from Global Terrorism Database search carried out 12-12-2016, casualty tally for all incidents resulting in fatality between 2002-2015 by any type of perpetrator using any weapon, including ambiguous cases.

One thought on “When Harm Reduction is a Crime: Tobacco, E-Cigarettes, and the World’s Most Unnecessary Black Market

  1. Pingback: Interview with a Vape-Pire: DIY E-Cigarette Aficionados Talk about Restrictions | Making Crimes

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