How the Tear Gas Industry Become a Billion-Dollar Business Over the Last 100 Years

 In FVEY, P5
  • The use of tear gas during the recent protests sur­round­ing police mis­con­duct in the United States has reignit­ed the debate about the legality of its use on large assem­blies.
  • Classified as a “less-lethal weapon,” tear gas has become a weapon of choice for law enforce­ment offi­cers ever since it first emerged during World War I.
  • Today, the less-lethal weapons indus­try gen­er­ates billions of dol­lars each year, and tear gas prod­ucts report­ed­ly com­prise about 25 per­cent of the entire indus­try.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Following is a tran­script of the video.

Narrator: Much of the cov­er­age of the 2020 protests against police mis­con­duct in the United States has looked a lot like this, shroud­ed in a thick cloud of tear gas. Some of the sounds in this video may be shock­ing. [explo­sion] And some of the footage may be dis­turb­ing. 

Reporter: Police on the roof are firing volley after volley of tear gas.

Reporter: Nobody was doing any­thing.

Reporter: Step back, get back, get back, get back! You’re ahead, you’re ahead.

Reporter: There is so much gas that has been launched again that you can barely even see that line of offi­cers.

Narrator: The use of tear gas has almost become syn­ony­mous with the protests, and it’s noth­ing new. On June 1, law-enforce­ment offi­cers used a vari­ety of less-lethal weapons on peace­ful pro­test­ers out­side the White House, cre­at­ing a scene eerily sim­i­lar to one from nearly a cen­tu­ry ago. In 1930, police used tear gas to dis­perse a group of unem­ployed demon­stra­tors in front of the White House.

Announcer: Washington became a bat­tle­ground.

Narrator: Two years later, President Herbert Hoover autho­rized the use of tear gas on American vet­er­ans gath­ered in Washington to demand their promised, yet unpaid bonus­es.

Announcer: Using tear gas, the troops method­i­cal­ly set about dis­pers­ing the marchers in as blood­less a manner as pos­si­ble.

Narrator: In the decades that fol­lowed, law-enforce­ment agen­cies around the world com­mon­ly dis­persed large assem­blies of pro­test­ers with tear gas. But tear gas was ini­tial­ly devel­oped as a weapon of war. So how did it become the weapon of choice against protests? Today, the busi­ness behind tear gas is worth bil­lions.

Announcer: Reliability and high per­for­mance are our bind­ing guar­an­tee.

Narrator: Less-lethal weapons, as they’re called, are weapons intend­ed to limit the esca­la­tion of con­flict with­out lethal force. This indus­try was worth about $6.3 bil­lion in 2016 and is pro­ject­ed to grow to $11.3 bil­lion by 2023. Tear gas rep­re­sents about 25% of the indus­try, mean­ing by 2023, it could be worth about $3 bil­lion a year.

Anna Feigenbaum: This is com­plete­ly a for-profit indus­try.

Narrator: This is Anna Feigenbaum, the author of a book about the his­to­ry of tear gas.

Feigenbaum: There is con­stant­ly new inno­va­tion in this indus­try. We’re seeing pushes to put more and more equip­ment into police hands.

Narrator: And the indus­try’s rise is tied to why it was orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped. The first known use of tear gas was in World War I, when French sol­diers fired tear gas grenades into German trench­es. It was one of many chem­i­cal weapons used in the war, during which over 90,000 sol­diers died from expo­sure to poi­so­nous gases.

Announcer: A meet­ing of European for­eign min­is­ters in Locarno, Switzerland.

Narrator: A 1925 treaty known as the Geneva Protocol banned the use of “asphyx­i­at­ing, poi­so­nous or other gases” in combat. But the United States would not ratify the agree­ment until 1975 and held the stance that the pro­to­col did not apply to non­tox­ic gases or chem­i­cals that could be used for riot con­trol. Other coun­tries dis­agreed.

Jamil Dakwar: The idea was that if you allow tear gas to be used in armed con­flict sit­u­a­tions, there could be esca­la­tion of other chem­i­cal weapons that would be increas­ing­ly dan­ger­ous and would cause mass casu­al­ties.

Narrator: And the pro­to­col also did not limit pro­duc­tion of those weapons, so pro­duc­tion of tear gas grew. 

Feigenbaum: The Chemical Warfare Service, which had been doing a lot of this R&D, wanted to con­tin­ue. And there was a big push to try and val­i­date its con­tin­ued exis­tence. And one of the main dri­vers of that push was a guy named Gen. Amos Fries. He decid­ed that tear gas could have a lot of uses for secu­ri­ty and for law enforce­ment. And so he worked to create this kind of com­mer­cial or domes­tic market in tear gas.

Announcer: The jumper repeater grenade dis­charges three large blasts of tear gas in rapid suc­ces­sion.

Narrator: Categorized as a less-lethal weapon, tear gas is defined by the CDC as any chem­i­cal agents that “tem­porar­i­ly make people unable to func­tion by caus­ing irri­ta­tion to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”

Announcer: Six smoke-filled jumper repeater grenades make an impres­sive dis­play of sat­u­ra­tion. Narrator: Tear gas man­u­fac­tur­ers aggres­sive­ly mar­ket­ed their prod­ucts to law-enforce­ment agen­cies.

Narrator: Like in this pro­mo­tion­al film from 1930 that illus­trates how tear gas can be used to thwart bank rob­bers. The mar­ket­ing worked.

Narrator: Tear gas became a weapon of choice for police tasked with dis­pers­ing large crowds.

Announcer: With the army on the way, the strike scene is hectic.

Narrator: In the early 20th cen­tu­ry, police often used tear gas during labor strikes.

Announcer: Then comes trou­ble, and police tear gas. After the pin is pulled, the grip on the strap handle con­trols the firing mech­a­nism.

Narrator: Manufacturers weren’t just sell­ing tear gas itself.

Announcer: When the handle is released in throw­ing, the grenade is acti­vat­ed.

Narrator: They were also hawk­ing must-have acces­sories.

Announcer: In a spe­cial kit avail­able for imme­di­ate use is a com­plete assort­ment of gas muni­tions, includ­ing pro­jec­tiles and grenades.

Narrator: And through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry, tear gas was used more fre­quent­ly on pro­test­ers around the world. In Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Vietnam.

Announcer: South to Saigon, tear gas has been used to crush recent street riot­ing.

Narrator: Northern Ireland.

Announcer: Washington police used tear gas to drive them away.

Narrator: Back in the US, police con­tin­ued to wield it on pro­test­ers. Along with labor strikes, police used tear gas at polit­i­cal and human rights protests, like the 1965 Civil Rights protests in Selma, Alabama. And in 1969, when police used tear gas to dis­perse groups protest­ing the Vietnam War.

Feigenbaum: There was resis­tance and people saying, “Well, how can you ban this in war but then allow it here? How could we have said that these chem­i­cals have no place as part of mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, and then you’re using it on civil­ians?” And so that strange­ness or almost what seems like an absur­di­ty of that excep­tion­al clause has long been point­ed out.

Narrator: But the United States always had excep­tions when it came to tear gas. The coun­try used tear gas and other chem­i­cals during the Vietnam War, both abroad and at home. More lim­i­ta­tions were put in place in 1993 with the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that explic­it­ly banned agents like tear gas “as a method of war­fare.” But it still did not ban its usage in law enforce­ment, includ­ing riot-con­trol instances. And so the tear gas indus­try con­tin­ued to grow.

Announcer: Combined Systems deliv­ers safety, reli­a­bil­i­ty, and effec­tive solu­tions.

Narrator: Today, at least three of the world’s top less-lethal weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers are based in the US.

Feigenbaum: We have Combined Systems, Inc. We have Safariland Group, NonLethal Technologies.

Announcer: NonLethal Technologies, with over 50 years’ expe­ri­ence in the tear gas indus­try.

Narrator: This 2016 video from Combined Systems’ YouTube chan­nel pro­vides a look at how less-lethal weapons are mar­ket­ed to poten­tial buyers. The video fea­tures drone footage of less-lethal weapons being demoed, set to the song “Back in Black” by AC/DC. Members of the demo team play­ful­ly point the weapons at the camera. Companies like Combined Systems share their inven­to­ries on their web­site, where you can browse their tear gas prod­ucts, like this aerosol grenade. Prices are avail­able upon request. But accord­ing to this price sheet from the com­pa­ny Amtec Less-Lethal Systems released by the state of Connecticut, a tear gas grenade can sell for between $30 and $40. These American com­pa­nies don’t just supply American law-enforce­ment agen­cies. According to the Omega Research Foundation, law-enforce­ment agen­cies in Hong Kong used prod­ucts made by NonLethal Technologies during the 2019 extra­di­tion protests in Hong Kong.

Officer: Disperse the area now. CS gas is being used.

Narrator: While tear gas is seen as a less-lethal alter­na­tive to bul­lets, the impact of tear gas can be far worse than tem­po­rary dis­com­fort. Tear gas pro­jec­tiles have caused seri­ous injuries.

Protester: F — , y’all. Come on, now!

Narrator: And the gas impacts people with pre­ex­ist­ing health con­di­tions like asthma more severe­ly. All of this during a res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­ease pan­dem­ic has re-sparked ques­tions about the weapons’ legal­i­ty.

Dakwar: Tear gas does­n’t dis­tin­guish between the people who are vio­lent or not vio­lent, obey­ing the law.

Narrator: This is Jamil Dakwar, direc­tor of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. And he’s been work­ing on a cam­paign to ban the use of tear gas on assem­blies.

Dakwar: In 2014, the protest in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a mas­sive use of tear gas, in fact, in a very irre­spon­si­ble and dan­ger­ous way. [siren wail­ing] We felt that there needed to be also an inter­na­tion­al assess­ment of the impact of those weapons. Why are they being deployed very quick­ly and easily with­out taking into account the impact on people, on the rights of people, par­tic­u­lar­ly the right to protest? So, that was 2014, and fast-for­ward, we are now in 2020.

Officer: Tear gas and other crowd-con­trol muni­tions may be deployed. Leave the area now.

Feigenbaum: We have seen a wide­spread use of it not only in the United States, but coming off the back of the upris­ings in Hong Kong. We are seeing lots and lots of cam­eras out, lots and lots of video footage being caught of a kind of indis­crim­i­nate and exces­sive use of these weapons, often against unarmed and non­vi­o­lent pro­test­ers. Again, this kind of absur­di­ty on this one level, once people find out this is banned in war­fare but allowed for police use, and then to think you’re using a toxin that affects the res­pi­ra­to­ry system during a res­pi­ra­to­ry pan­dem­ic. You know, there’s kind of a double absur­di­ty to this moment.

Narrator: Although tear gas remains ille­gal for use in combat, US mil­i­tary mem­bers are exposed to its effects during basic train­ing. And today, tear gas remains legal for use by domes­tic law enforce­ment. The United Nations released offi­cial guid­ance on the use of less-lethal weapons by law enforce­ment, which says they “should be con­sid­ered a mea­sure of last resort.”

Feigenbaum: We have the United Nations’ Basic Principles on the Use of Force, but these don’t really have leg­isla­tive weight behind them, and so it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly man­dat­ed that police depart­ments need to follow these. If police depart­ments needed to follow these, we would still have tear gas, but the way in which it could be used would look very dif­fer­ent to the kind of use that we see today. Major restric­tions on the kinds of con­di­tions that would allow police to use it.

Narrator: Some have advo­cat­ed for alter­na­tive less-lethal weapons, like the Active Denial System, a rel­a­tive­ly new tech­nol­o­gy that emits highly tar­get­ed elec­tro­mag­net­ic rays that heat skin on con­tact but report­ed­ly do not leave any last­ing effects. But ques­tions remain around the pur­pose of these weapons and law enforce­ment in protest sit­u­a­tions.

Dakwar: This is the moment to reex­am­ine and revis­it the tol­er­ance towards the easy use of such weapons in the con­text of mass assem­blies and protests, even if it’s a tem­po­rary ban to exam­ine ram­i­fi­ca­tions and to come out with clear guid­ance for law enforce­ment and what their respon­si­bil­i­ties are when it comes to these mass assem­blies and protests.

Narrator: In June, Oregon passed a bill lim­it­ing the use of tear gas with a loop­hole that allows offi­cers to deploy tear gas in a loose­ly defined con­text of riot con­trol. Hours after the gov­er­nor signed the bill, law-enforce­ment offi­cers in Portland used tear gas on a group of pro­test­ers after declar­ing the scene a riot. Business Insider reached out to the National Association of Police Organizations, but it did not return our request for com­ment.

Feigenbaum: Whether or not tear gas would be banned out­right, that debate is instant­ly, and right­ly so, going to enter into a broad­er debate around, what is a jus­ti­fied use of force by police? Is it even the police who should be on the street when we are seeing mass protest? Is polic­ing actu­al­ly the right response?

Narrator: As fed­er­al offi­cers con­tin­ue to be deployed around the coun­try to con­front pro­test­ers, the cloud of tear gas con­tin­ues to grow. NonLethal Technologies, along with Combined Systems and the Safariland Group, did not respond to Business Insider’s requests for com­ment.

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