E-cigarettes: When bootleggers and Baptists converge

E-cigarettes, sometimes flavored to tempt the immature (“Unicorn Puke,” “Stoned Smurf,” “German Chocolate Beefcake”), might be “gateway drugs,” leading to tobacco cigarettes. Currently, however, e-cigarettes often are substitutes for them. So, prepare for regulations combining high-mindedness and low cunning.

E-cigarettes raise public health issues but also illustrate the unhealthy process by which public policy often is made. They illustrate a familiar phenomenon, the cooperation between “bootleggers and Baptists,” meaning merchants and moralists — those motivated by profits and those motivated by social improvement.

In 1983, Bruce Yandle, then a Clemson University economist who now is at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, had an epiphany: Regulations often come from a counterintuitive convergence of pressures from two groups, the earnestness of one providing cover for the other’s avarice. In his example, Baptists wanted laws closing liquor stores on Sundays to promote piety, and bootleggers wanted such laws to create an unserved market.