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