Few domestic glass-smokeware manufacturers remained in business following “Black Monday” in February ’03. That was the day that the Feds launched Operation Pipe Dreams, conducting nationwide raids on the glass industry. Black Monday resulted in multiple arrests and convictions, most notably of Tommy Chong, who served a year in jail for his involvement in his family’s bong-making company, Chong Glass.

 

But while the US government failed to eradicate the functional side of the domestic glass-art industry, it did succeed in handing over a tremendous portion of the business to not-so-nice people in volatile and not-so-nice nations like China and Pakistan, which manufacture shoddy and potentially harmful glassware.

 

Ken, a glassblowing artist and the owner of Chameleon Glass, based in Phoenix, AZ, packs your bowl with a dose of reality. So the next time you light up, first stop and ask yourself: What am I actually smoking out of?

How effective do you think the raids in Operation Pipe Dreams were?
After Black Monday, good-paying blue-collar glassblowing jobs nearly disappeared, along with domestic manufacturers. And with them went a wealth of innovation capability in function and design.

 

But perhaps if our federal agents had taken basic economics, simple Keynesian supply-and-demand would have indicated that they couldn’t eliminate glass pipes—supply may have been reduced, but demand remained. After the government quashed the domestic supply, the demand was still strong. Importers were happy to fill those empty cases. The US government now stands by idly as imports flood the country by the container.

Why is the US glass industry concerned?
In addition to the fact that importers pay astronomically low labor rates, they have also avoided substantial tariffs by manifesting the products [i.e., listing them for shipment] as necklaces or beaded curtains or glass handicraft. If they were declared as tobacco accessories and made to pay tariffs, the current uneven playing field might be leveled a bit.

 

Because Customs is lax about enforcing tobacco-product tariffs, the pipes can be brought in by container in pieces and slapped together in some no-name sweatshop. With artificially depressed prices, domestic manufacturers haven’t rebounded well in an import-price-driven marketplace.

Does imported glass smokeware present a danger?
When someone says, “Dude, that first pull was rough,” it may be due to the fact that they’re using drill-outs, which are typical of import pipes. US Customs considers any tobacco accessory with more than two holes to be paraphernalia—it falls into the category of contraband, allowing the cargo to be seized and destroyed. To avoid seizure, importers “sink” the bowl but do not blow a bowl hole, leaving the piece with two holes—a mouthpiece and a carb. String is then passed through the two holes on pipes and one-hitters to give credence to the falsified manifest, which describes the contraband cargo as a necklace or some kind of glass handicraft.

 

Later, the bowl hole is drilled out, which severely weakens the pipe at precisely the point that it needs to be at its strongest, due to the constant heating and cooling of the bowl, which causes its expansion and contraction. Drilling ruins pipe strength and leaves glass shards and powder for the user to inhale. The shards and powder, similar to asbestos, cause silicosis—a permanent and debilitating disease similar to mesothelioma. But don’t call your injury lawyer: Unlike a domestic company, importers disappear into thin air as soon as the container is empty.

 

We’re also concerned because importers don’t trouble themselves with innovative ideas or products—they copy everything. Did importers come up with double perks? No. Did importers use scientific techniques to incorporate ground joints instead of rubber grommets? No. Did importers invest any time and effort to develop techniques that allow the incorporation of dichromatic materials into glass? No. These are all domestic innovations—innovations that have all but stopped after Black Monday.

What can consumers do to protect themselves?
First, look at that bowl hole closely. If the sidewall of the bowl hole looks rough or frosted, it’s a drill-out—and that first pull is gonna be ugly. A flame-worked bowl hole is tapered, shiny and smooth, whether it comes from a retailer or your local guy.

 

Second, research reputable domestic manufacturers and buy that brand at your brick-and-mortar retailer. Internet e-tailers are famous for fakes and imports.

Imports are often referred to as “India glass.” Is India the main culprit?
Actually, India mainly produces true art glass—vases, lighting fixtures and the like—which sells for more money than pipes. Most of the so-called “India glass” pipes are actually produced in Pakistan at government-sponsored, indentured-child-labor camps. Do you really want to be sending your cash to Pakistan? Do you really want to support child slavery?

 

You may be, unwittingly. Importers typically only accept cash from retailers. Then they funnel it back to the country of origin: no taxes paid, no roads paved, no hospitals built, no new teachers. Think about that the next time you spend four hours waiting in the ER after two hospitals closer to your house were shuttered due to budgetary shortfalls.