Against the Ban of Online Sales

There is a call among some of the opponents of vaping, now including the New York Times‘ editorial board, to ban the online sale of (at least) nicotine-containing liquids. Their position falls, apparently, below the rubric of halting underaged purchases. The position is not unique, as it comes up from opponents of just about any good or service.

In our age, to suggest the need to ban any common commerce from the Internet simply fails, at least before the attempt is made to find technical solutions. Online buying and selling already, or will soon, amount to at least a billion dollars per day in the United States alone. And that’s just business-to-customer, so business-to-business is likely at least as large.

Online banking is another major online commercial activity. The fact that banks trust the current security regime enough to move forward is a clear sign that restricted items such as nicotine products, alcohol, and others should be allowed via the Internet.

Indeed, pornography is regularly purchased on the Internet. But a more important analog to nicotine would be e-pharmacies. While there are some illegitimate pharmacies online, many reputable, accredited pharmacies do sell via the Internet. The FDA even has pages devoted to helping consumers “Find a safe online pharmacy.”

Given the general direction of society toward e-commerce, and that we are obviously capable of meeting the challenges it poses (which in the case of drugs include temperature control, access control, etc.), it seems that any knee-jerk argument that some goods must only be sold in person falls on its face. We already have need to have authentication and chain-of-custody in purchases. While online sales ought to be regulated appropriately, they simply must be permitted and the regulations will merely serve to strengthen the e-commerce landscape for all goods.

Okay, so what about guns? Once again, as for any other restricted good, verification should suffice. A legitimate purchase is fine. Given the broad availability of illegal guns (not to mention drugs), there is absolutely no reason to believe that Internet sales will make the problem worse.

The call for banning of online sales is akin to incorporation of so-called digital rights management into digital content. It only punishes the legitimate consumers and users of the goods and services. It does not seriously hinder anyone that wishes to skirt the law. Worst of all, it weakens the market considerably, removing opportunities for new efficiencies and growth.

So what good is a call for banning online sales? It sure sounds good. Just like DRM. To quote H.L. Mencken, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Banning of commerce, even merely through one trade route, is the use of a cleaver to remove a splinter from your finger. It is a drastic overreach, beyond the pale except in the most extreme circumstances (e.g., plutonium and uranium in the case of outright prohibition, or maybe vending machines that sold cigarettes).

Sales via the Internet simply aren’t the issue, and we have a host of products that need proper age verification and/or buyer authentication. These, at volumes large enough to justify the cost of implementing the proper controls on purchasers, require the government to step in and regulate, but in no way justify a ban.


Comparative Chemistry

It’s a very lame argument, and one that happens all too frequently in the news media. The prominent recent example was the recent news that a bread-additive (azodicarbonamide) was being removed from a fast-food chain’s bread, because (gasp (though, literally; see below)) that same chemical is used in yoga mats.

Don’t get me wrong, they should remove it. Because of what the chemical does (contributes to asthma). Not because of guilt-by-association, though.

The mentioning of yoga mats is clearly a foolish association on the part of journalists. It is as if to say, “you wouldn’t eat yoga mats, would you? Are you some kind of sicko?” So of course, nobody wants to be attached to the yoga mat eating stigma.

Another common example that pops up is propylene glycol (PG; found in Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) aka e-cigarettes, nicotine vaporizers (or other such terms as e-hookahs, vape pens, and probably, at this point, anti-child diol/polyol ordnance)). Quoting Wikipedia: Propylene glycol: “Applications” (references removed for readability):

Like ethylene glycol, propylene glycol is able to lower the freezing point of water, and so it is used as aircraft de-icing fluid. Water-propylene glycol mixtures dyed pink to indicate the mixture is relatively nontoxic are sold under the name of RV or marine antifreeze. It is also used to winterize a vacant structure. […]

Propylene glycol is a minor ingredient in the oil dispersant Corexit, used in great quantities during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

No, the fact that PG is a minor ingredient in Corexit does not make it toxic (though Corexit certainly is nasty stuff).

Chemistry just doesn’t work in a way that fits the sensationalist agenda, fortunately. You don’t hear of that vile chemical, nicotine, being present in things as benign and tasty as potatoes and tomatoes. But it’s there (only about a microgram for hundred grams, or less; for eggplant apparently as few as ten grams may contain a microgram of nicotine).

Nor do you often hear that other peoples’ breathing (much less your own) may be killing you: we exhale formaldehyde at several parts per billion, and it’s a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde has long been used as an embalming agent. You’re breathing out an embalming agent (and a constituent of adhesives used in carpeting and plywood). Sicko.

Formaldehyde is toxic, and exposure should be limited. But in minute quantities it is not something to lose sleep over. We should keep in mind that chemical interactions and dangers are always a matter of what the chemical is/does, and how much of it there is.

But you won’t hear sensationalist articles try to keep things in perspective. They’re more likely to invite us to over-dose on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Even so-called top-tier journalists, publications, and venues fall into this ugly racket.

To understand why we get stuck with a tirade of yoga mat-related dreck, we must follow the path of the story backwards. Undoubtedly the chemical’s use in the bread of the fast-food chain came up. And the reporter did not know anything about that chemical, so they asked an expert, “where’s that chemical used?” The expert listed some examples, and the one that seemed the most imagistic turned out to be yoga mats (though some did mention shoe rubber).

It would be like meeting aliens, and they say, “oh, earthlings, we know about them. They’re the same species as [insert any infamous historical person you want].” And then they would surely blast it across their equivalent of news media.