No need for a rush on bans
While most people agree with the statement that we live in a complicated world, a huge number argue for what they claim to be simple solutions. Nowhere is this more common than in addressing criminal, anti-social or harmful goods and behaviour. Some people favour strict laws that ban goods and behaviour. But bans almost never result in completely halting their target. In most cases, regulation beats bans hands down.
Take the current debate over ivory. The world agrees that killing elephants and rhinos, and selling their ivory, is a crime against nature, man and ecology. Hunting down poachers is applauded everywhere. Preventing profiting from ivory trafficking, however, has caused division. The two main choices are a total ban on sales and purchases of ivory on one hand, and a supervised market on the other.
A total ban on ivory will not work, and we already see that. That is in the news regularly. In the latest case at Suvarnabhumi airport, Customs Department agents recently seized 31 pieces of ivory, weighing 148 kilogrammes. It arrived from Nigeria, and was on its way to Laos and Vietnam, where today's top illegal carvers work, and then to China, where the money is. This "new" ivory must be a primary target of law enforcement, including at all international borders. But for the past couple of centuries, millions of people have acquired and currently own ivory. The total-ban faction would group this "old" ivory with the new, and outlaw all sales. The other faction sees registration and regulation as the answer, and indeed this seems the better way to go.
Another area where authorities have already cut off debate almost before it could start is e-cigarettes. Smoking electronic cigarettes, known popularly as vaping, is just as illegal in Thailand as possession and use of heroin or crystal methamphetamine. The Ministry of Commerce, of all places, steered through a complete ban on all production, import, sale, paraphernalia and thus possession of anything concerned with e-cigarettes and smoking. Illegal import of vaping material risks a prison sentence of 10 years, and street sales could bring five years in jail.
This ban on electronic smoking and vaping devices, which sparked a local debate after a woman was thrown into jail when police found the materials in the back of her car last December, addresses a crime without victims. And new studies are virtually unanimous that vaping is the second-best action against cigarette smoking short of simply stopping. Defence of the ban has become ludicrous. The Department of Disease Control has even issued a statement saying the reason to ban e-smoking is it could form formaldehyde.
This is the worst part of the ban, the government's refusal to accept available science. A very contentious and wrong viewpoint has sprung up that says e-cigarettes are more harmful than tobacco products made and sold by the government monopoly.
Science says otherwise. Public Health authorities in Britain reported in 2015 that e-cigarettes are 5% as harmful as tobacco to users -- and not harmful at all to others, like second-hand smoke. Just last week, the New York University's College of Global Public Health showed that if tobacco smokers switched to e-cigarettes, it would directly prevent 6.6 million early deaths.
Whether on ivory, e-cigarettes or other issues, it is rarely a good idea to rush to ban. It is often stated that if they were invented today, common medicines like Aspirin and paracetamol would be banned. Total bans never work and usually spawn black markets. They sap public resources and require extra prisons.
There are actions and objects so harmful that bans are justified. Usually, however, thoughtful government can come up with education and regulation that is far more in the public interest.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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