Clive Bates doesn't vape, but he recently ordered a bottle of 99 percent pure liquid nicotine online from China—the stuff used by DIY vapers to make their own e-liquid at home. Bates, who has a background in government and now runs a blog on public policy, was trying to prove a point: The new regulations in the US and Europe aren't going to do what they were designed to do.
The new rules were intended to regulate and create a more tightly-controlled market, not to create prohibition. But if consumers can't get the same products they've grown accustomed to legally, they'll find other workarounds. Overregulation could very likely lead to a blossoming black market that otherwise wouldn't need to exist.
"The Food and Drug Administration is off in some weird dream world in which they think they control everything," Bates told me over the phone. "The truth is the consumers control everything."
Earlier this year, both the European Union and the FDA released official regulations governing which vaping products can be made and sold, and how. Many in the vaping industry have criticized these rules as being too strict and believe the expensive application process now required could drastically reduce the number of products on the market. But many long-term vapers say they're not worried about their personal habit.
"After trying to figure out a way to quit smoking for so long, and finally seeing success with vaping, there is no way I go back to smoking," one Redditor told me. "DIY or the black market will be what I go to if I must."
Bates demonstrated how easy it is to do just that by ordering the nicotine for himself. He wrote that the 10ml bottle he purchased cost $32 including shipping. It arrived in less than a week, and would last a vaper anywhere from three to nine months, depending on how much and how often he or she vaped. Most DIY vapers buy already diluted nicotine because it's safer to handle and because it's less likely to get you in trouble. The new EU regulations, for example, prohibit e-liquids with nicotine strength higher than 2 percent. But Bates, who is based in the UK, wanted to show that it's easy to get your hands on even high concentrations.
"The very strong nicotine liquid is usually regarded as a poison and starts to become covered by regulation, but you don't have to buy at that full strength," Bates said. "And the idea that customs officers are going to whip these little bottle out that cost a few dollars and test the strength of them and then take some sort of action accordingly is implausible."
The rest of the ingredients used to make e-liquids—food grade flavoring, vegetable glycerin, and propylene glycol—are even easier to purchase. These ingredients aren't regulated under the FDA's new rules and can be bought legally on site including Amazon. The parts needed to build a vape device are also readily available online.
But it's the nicotine that's the clincher, because even diluted it's a very dangerous chemical to have around the house. It's flammable, can cause skin or eye irritation, and can be deadly if accidentally ingested. Just a teaspoon of the liquid at a high enough concentration could kill a child, and just a little bit more could kill an adult. When rolling out these rules, the FDA had an idea of a smaller market with a limited selection of tightly controlled products. Instead, it may be opening the door to an entire population of consumers hoarding dangerous chemicals and mixing up liquid drugs in their kitchen sink. There's no question this industry needed some regulation, but over-regulation may have some unexpected consequences too.