Things That Used To Be Legal

Photo courtesy Amazon.co.uk
2011 was the last year Primatene Mist was available as an over-the-counter emergency asthma remedy in the United States. As of January 1st of this year, the product is no longer being produced; once the current retail stock is depleted, the product will no longer be on the market.

In what is perhaps a major sign of the times, Primatene Mist was discontinued in accordance with the "Montreal Protocol," which established international guidelines with respect to chloroflourocarbons (CFCs). If you remember, CFCs were found to deplete the layer ozone gas (O3) in the Earth's atmosphere, which protects organisms from some of the most harmful effects of solar radiation. Recall that the movement to eliminate industrial CFC use was borne out of the discovery of a large "hole" in the ozone layer above Antarctica.

Now, the ozone hole is very real. Were the ozone layer to be completely diminished, life on Earth would change dramatically. Species would be eradicated, and human life would have to be spent predominantly indoors. No one would deny this.

That being said, the amount of CFCs contained in Primatene Mist is very small. The product sells well, but not nearly on par with other over-the-counter remedies, because asthma is a comparatively rare condition. Furthermore, if used correctly, Primatene Mist offers a couple of puffs of relief during emergencies only. In other words, the product's overall contribution to the "ozone hole" is extremely minimal.

Many of you will be tempted to interject here: "But if every product containing CFCs were allowed to be sold, we'd continue to destroy the ozone layer." This is a ruse, and a very dishonest one. There is no "choice" between Primatene Mist and an ozone hole. The vast majority of industrial CFC use has been permanently discontinues. Primatene Mist represents one of the last product discontinuations.

Now let's take a quick look at who is affected. There are no longer any over-the-counter emergency asthma  relief products available. If someone requires emergency relief, they will now have to either call an ambulance, or use a product obtained from a pharmacist, the prescription of which had to have come from a doctor's visit weeks or months earlier.

The result of this product discontinuation on real, living, breathing people will be as follows:

  • More medical emergencies.
  • Busier emergency rooms and first-responders.
  • Longer wait times for emergency medical services.
  • Longer wait times for visits to family doctors
  • Higher health care costs.
  • A greater shortage of those emergency asthma relief products that are still on the market.

There is no question that CFCs deplete the ozone layer. There is also no question that reducing patient access to medicine results in all of the above phenomena.

The only question that remains is whether all of the above phenomena are an acceptable cost to eliminating a very minor contribution to atmospheric CFC content. I would argue that no human life that is in immediate harm is "worth destroying" over atmospheric CFCs. Your mind may vary.

It doesn't matter, however. In a few years, no one will remember what it was like when Primatene Mist was available over-the-counter. All of this will be a distant memory.

Except, of course, that I will remember, and will have made a note of it on my blog.


  1. I was going to say that I thought you understated the minimal impact that a single inhaler could have on the ozone layer. But then I remembered a university chemistry class. That prompted me to look up the chemical reaction by which CFCs destroy ozone. It turns out it is actually 2 reactions (among a few others), all which destroy ozone much faster than it can regenerate.

    Cl + O3 -> ClO + O2 – The chlorine atom changes an ozone molecule to ordinary oxygen
    ClO + O3 -> Cl + 2 O2

    Note the catalytic nature of this reaction. Ie. the Cl is never used up. Theoretically, a single inhaler could destroy the ozone layer. This is of course ridiculous, but your question above is good.

    "[are] the above phenomena are an acceptable cost to eliminating a very minor contribution to atmospheric CFC content"

    I think there is an even more interesting question buried here. Upon reflection, this is not (or may not, depending on the science - which I glossed over) simply another inane government ban as most of the 'Things That Used To Be Legal' blogs are. The Montreal Protocal was actually carefully studied and scientifically motivated. Scientists felt so strongly about this threat that they globally pushed governments to act on this. So much so that the governments of the world agreed that something needed to be done. Although the enforcement is likely week, even third world countries are held to the Montreal Protocol. So if you disagree with the details of this particular case, CFC and ozone depletion, just forget about that for a while and let's ask this question:

    "Where does personal freedom stop and societal responsibility begin?"

    I am nagged by this question as it is one that seems unanswered by uber liberty.

    1. "Social responsibility" is a ruse, Phil. It is merely a fancy phrase that means "I believe in something so fervently that I am going to force everyone else to behave the way I want them to."

      If you are genuinely capable of telling someone who is having a severe asthma attack that they cannot use their Primatene Mist and save themselves because it "theoretically could destroy the entire ozone layer," then you have probably passed the litmus test that determines who is a tyrant and who is not a tyrant.

      There is no good reason to ban Primatene Mist if you accept the assumption that living human beings are worth more than a theoretical future state of the ozone layer.