50 famous things banned in the U.S.
America is a nation of laws—and some of those laws are just downright weird. It’s illegal to wrestle bears in Alabama, for example. You can’t trick-or-treat on Sunday in Delaware, you can’t give rats as gifts in Montana, and in Indiana, you aren’t allowed to shoot fish in a barrel. Some laws, like those just mentioned, are comically odd to the point where you might wonder how legislators even had the time to focus on writing them in the first place. Other bans can be traced to religious blue laws that are holdovers from an era when it was not uncommon for piety to be legislated. In other cases, archaic and primitive laws that once conformed to the norms of the time were simply never wiped from the books as society modernized. In Michigan, for example, a woman may not cut her hair without her husband’s permission.
In many other cases, bans make perfect sense and are enacted to promote public safety, enhance public health, protect the environment, and to keep individuals from inadvertently killing, maiming, poisoning, infecting, burning, or blowing up themselves or other people. Federal law is universal in every corner of America, but the country as a whole is a patchwork of laws that are often inconsistent and contradictory from one state, and even from one municipality to the next. Things that are perfectly legal to own, sell, and possess in one state could land you in prison the next state over.
Here’s a look at 50 things and activities that are forbidden in America. Some of them are federal laws that apply to every state and citizen. Others are unique to a group of states, a single state, or even a local community. Read on for just a few dozen of the thousands of things that Americans are not allowed to do or have.
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Until 2005, the United States consumed 60% of the world’s beluga caviar, a delicacy long associated with high-end luxury cuisine. The fish-egg aristocratic favorite does not come from the beluga whale, which is a mammal, but the beluga sturgeon. In 2005, The New York Times reported that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service had banned the import of beluga products from the countries in the Caspian Sea region that export it because they didn’t comply with safeguards for the fish, which has been threatened with extinction due to overfishing.
Brass knuckles were designed for one thing and one thing only: to break people’s faces by turning average fists into deadly weapons. For obvious reasons, several states prohibit the sale, purchase, or possession of brass knuckles outright, but their legal status remains murky in the country as a whole. Some states ban them only during the use of a crime, and other states ban brass knuckles but provide gaping legal loopholes that allow residents to own them if they’re called something else, like “paperweights” or “jewelry.”
In the 1970s, Bruce Lee’s success spurred a martial arts revolution in the United States, and theaters dedicated to showing kung fu and karate flicks popped up in cities across the country, most notably New York. Many of those cities, including the Big Apple, were experiencing unprecedented crime waves, and nunchucks—like the kind Lee wielded so masterfully on screen—were associated with gangs of martial-arts-obsessed hoodlums who occasionally used the deadly but hard-to-use weapons during muggings and assaults. In 1974, New York led the way for several states to ban nunchucks, but in 2018, USA Today reported that an Empire State judge lifted the ban as an unconstitutional infringement on Second Amendment rights, although appeals making their way through the courts continue to keep nunchucks in legal limbo.
Butterfly knives are another weapon that was associated with both martial arts hysteria and legitimate concerns over street crime in the 1970s. Easy to conceal and built to intimidate, butterfly knives were banned by several states as concealed weapons designed only to kill and maim. The foldable, rapidly deployable bladed weapons remain illegal in more than half a dozen states, and they’re semi-legal in several others.
Long a staple of indigenous people, bushmeat is the name given to animals caught and killed for food in the African wilderness, and it can include anything from bats to monkeys to lions. Its import has long been banned in the United States, partly for environmental concerns, but mostly because of the risk of spreading serious infectious diseases like Ebola. Despite its legal status, bushmeat remains a coveted delicacy for some African-born Americans and is frequently smuggled into the U.S. It commands a high price—as much as $100 for six or seven pounds, according to Newsweek.
Shark fin soup
Shark fin soup is wildly popular throughout the East, but the gruesome practice of “finning” sharks involves catching sharks, hacking off their dorsal fins while they’re still alive, and tossing them back into the water to die. That, along with concern over rapidly dwindling shark populations, compelled the United States to ban the practice of finning in U.S. waters in 2000, according to National Geographic. At least a dozen states ban the sale of shark fins altogether, but the high demand for shark-fin soup has bred a lucrative underground market.
Like butterfly knives and nunchucks, switchblades have for decades been associated with street crime and gangs of marauding delinquent hoodlums. GIs returning from World War II brought back the automatic knives (sometimes called stilettos), and they were soon the trademark weapon of the leather-jacket-clad, post-war gangs that emerged in the 1950s, like the kind made famous in “West Side Story.” The 1958 Federal Switchblade Act made them illegal, and they’re still considered contraband today.
Automatic weapons, which fire ammunition continuously with a single pull of the trigger, have been regulated and generally banned since the 1930s when Prohibition-era gangsters terrorized America with submachine guns, most notably the notorious Thompson submachine gun, or “Tommy gun.” Semiautomatic weapons, which fire one round with each pull of the trigger, however, are still legal, readily available, and hugely popular. Devices called bump stocks allowed gun owners to circumvent the ban by easily converting legally purchased semiautomatic rifles into automatic weapons, but they were banned after a gunman used a bump stock to kill 58 people and wound 422 people in Las Vegas in 2017, according to CNN.
Cuban cigars have long been hailed as the finest in the world, but they were banned as part of JFK’s embargo of Cuba during the Cold War in 1962. When Cuban revolutionary leader and cold warrior Fidel Castro died in 2016, however, President Barack Obama eased some restrictions and allowed some Americans to visit Cuba, buy cigars, smoke them, and gift them to friends and family or use them for personal consumption. It is still illegal, however, to buy and sell Cuban cigars in the United States.
Pufferfish are an ancient Japanese delicacy, but when prepared incorrectly, the highly toxic fish can quickly kill anyone who eats it. Much of its body, including some organs and glands, are packed with tetrodotoxin or saxitoxin, according to the FDA, which are more deadly than cyanide and cannot be destroyed by cooking or freezing. The commercial import and sale of pufferfish, sometimes called blowfish, is highly restricted, and the personal import, sale, or use is always illegal.
Pre-1985 children’s books
In 2009, the New York Daily News reported that a new interpretation of federal laws regulating lead-based products compelled some libraries to pull children’s books printed before 1985—bad news for E. B. White and Dr. Seuss. Some older children’s books were manufactured with trace amounts of lead, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s 2009 reinterpretation of lead statutes included even the tiniest amounts of lead in products designed for children. Some libraries pulled all children’s books printed before 1985, the year lead was taken out of the production process altogether.
By 1989, redfish populations were so depleted that most Gulf states were placing strict restrictions on fishing them, according to a Washington Post article from the time. Also known as channel drum and red drum, redfish have long been a staple of cuisine in New Orleans, other Gulf hotspots, and throughout the South. The threatened fish’s precarious situation, however, took precedence over taste buds and tradition, and in 2007, President George W. Bush declared red drum a protected game fish, making it illegal to sell or consume any that were caught in federal waters and encouraged states to protect the fish in state waters. Today, all Gulf states except Mississippi ban the commercial harvest of redfish and limit sport fishing to catch and release.
Rich people are known to have money to burn, but even the aristocracy can get into serious trouble if they actually burn money. You don’t even have to destroy money with fire to find yourself on the wrong side of the law. According to the Department of the Treasury, it’s illegal even to deface money, which means that little mustache drawn on George Washington’s face on the $1 bill in your wallet could earn the artist a visit from the Secret Service and up to six months in jail.
Color photocopying money
The Treasury department advises that the color copying of money is also illegal, even if it’s not for nefarious purposes like counterfeiting. Not only shouldn’t you make color copies of money, but you can’t. According to Business Insider, today’s sophisticated currency is embedded with a secret security code called the Counterfeit Deterrence System, which alerts photocopying machines, printers, and even Photoshop that someone is trying to duplicate U.S. currency, which prevents the machines and software from making the copy.
Spanish Pork, like Jamon Iberico de bellota, is some of the finest in the world. The country’s ham is almost as legendary as Cuba’s cigars—and just like puffing on a Cuban, it’s illegal to buy, sell, or import any Spanish ham in America without a proper license. According to a 2005 Chicago Tribune report dating to the genesis of the ban, not a single pork slaughterhouse in Spain meets FDA standards, and therefore, the country’s scrumptious hams are contraband because of fears of spreading swine fever. While the government lifted the outright ban in 2011, it remains illegal to bring Spanish ham through customs for personal use or commercially import it without an FDA license.
Anyone who’s ever seen the movie “Dazed and Confused” knows that “tampering with mailboxes is a felony offense.” That’s not completely accurate, but it is a federal offense to tamper with, vandalize, deface, or destroy mailboxes or any mail inside of them, which are considered federal property. Far from a harmless teenage prank, busting mailboxes is serious business—each act of vandalism can earn the vandal three years in prison or a $250,000 fine, according to the U.S. Postal Service.
It’s hard to imagine there’s a kid or kid-at-heart in Great Britain who doesn’t smile when someone mentions Kinder Surprise Eggs, but in the sugar-crazed United States, they’re a mystery. Hollow chocolate eggs with a surprise toy inside, Kinder eggs are a staple of childhood in England and other parts of Europe. According to NPR, however, a U.S. law dating to the 1930s bans any candy with inedible components inside because of the choking hazard it may present, so you’d be hard-pressed to find an American kid who’s ever heard of Kinder eggs, much less eaten a real one. To circumvent this ban, in 2017 Kinder developed a similar product called Kinder Joy for the U.S. market, in which the toy and chocolate are sealed separately within the egg.
Cyclamate is an artificial sweetener that’s 10 times sweeter than sugar. Although it’s still popular in parts of the world, it was banned in the United States in 1969, according to the SF Gate. Around that time, research revealed that cyclamate was linked to cancer and, potentially, to mutated sperm.
Mangosteen is a purple fruit that’s widely consumed and enjoyed in its native Thailand and many other parts of the world. It was long banned in the United States, however, because mangosteen is prone to infestation by invasive Asian fruit flies. In 2007, according to Delish, the ban was lifted—but all imported mangosteen must first be irradiated to kill any insects.
Undocumented Chilean sea bass
Enormous deepwater fish coveted worldwide for their mild white flesh, Chilean sea bass were fished to the brink of extinction. That led the U.S. to join a multinational coalition in banning the import of Chilean sea bass. According to the U.S. departments of Commerce and State, however, the ban has been relaxed, with one caveat—to curb the massive illegal fishing trade, all imports of Chilean sea bass must include documentation that proves they were fished legally.
Foie gras is made by force-feeding corn to ducks and geese until their livers become enlarged and saturated with fat—the liver is the delicacy. According to Reuters, California recently banned the practice, a move that was hotly contested by many in the restaurant industry, and in 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the ban, keeping the state foie-gras-free.
Haggis is a savory “pudding” (the term is used to describe sweet and savory dishes in the U.K.) made from sheep hearts, lungs, and liver, minced with oatmeal, onions, and spices. It’s a traditional delicacy in Scotland, but it’s been banned in the U.S. since 1971, according to the Scotland Daily Record. In fact, the FDA deems anything containing sheep lungs to be unfit for human consumption, whether it’s produced here or overseas, because of the risk of transmitting a sheep-related disease called scrapie.
Casu marzu cheese
The U.S. has a ban on casu marzu cheese, the classic Italian cheese is made by letting heated sheep’s milk curdle for three weeks, which draws flies that lay eggs within. The eggs hatch into maggots, which eat the rotting milk and excrete a substance that gives casu marzu its rich flavor and soft texture—by the time the cheese is ready after several months, it contains thousands of maggots.
Ortolans are tiny songbirds from France no bigger than a human thumb, and they’re so highly prized for their rich, subtle, hazelnut flavor that eating them was once reserved only for royalty. The practice of eating ortolan, however, has been banned in the United States since 1999, largely because of the torture involved behind the scenes, according to CNBC. Ortolans are blinded or kept in darkness for weeks on end, which makes them gorge on fruit and grain until they’re fat enough to be thrown—still alive—into Armagnac brandy, which both drowns and marinades them before they’re roasted.
Alcoholic energy drinks
The malt liquor beverage Four Loko no longer contains caffeine—no alcohol-based energy drink can contain stimulants, according to the American Psychological Association. The makers of Four Loko came under fierce attack in the late 2000s when a series of psychotic episodes and deaths were attributed to the beverage which the company heavily marketed to young drinkers. Thanks to an FDA warning about the dangerous brew, caffeinated, alcohol-based energy drinks were banned.
British Cadbury chocolate
The Hershey company insists that American Cadbury brand chocolate tastes virtually identical to that sold in Great Britain, but to the British, the Yankees have ruined their national chocolate of choice, according to Business Insider. In 1988, Hershey bought the rights for the U.S. operations of the British Cadbury company, and in 2015, Hershey won a legal challenge to ban the sale or import of Cadbury chocolate made in Britain in the United States.
Although it’s native to West Africa, the versatile ackee fruit is the national fruit of Jamaica, where it grows on trees that can reach 50 feet tall. Most Americans, however, will live their whole lives and never taste one—it’s banned by the FDA. Ackee contains hypoglycin, a non-proteinogenic amino acid toxin. If ackee is eaten when it’s not quite ripe, it can trigger a serious reaction—fittingly called Jamaican vomiting sickness—and can even be fatal.
In 1987, the FDA mandated that all milk sold for human consumption must first be pasteurized, which banned unpasteurized, or raw milk, from interstate commerce. Milk laws vary from state to state, but most states ban the sale of raw milk outside of on-farm situations, but virtually all states ban its sale in grocery stores.
Confusing turkey ham with ham turkey
In 1976, The New York Times reported on a bizarre but significant rivalry in the food industry with the arrival of a new product known as “turkey ham,” which was made from turkey, but produced to look and taste like ham. Turkey ham enraged both the pork and beef industries so greatly that they took successful legal action, and the law remains strict and specific to this day. Among the many associated regulations are that makers of the product must call it “turkey ham” and not “ham turkey,” and those words must be immediately followed by the phrase “cured turkey thigh meat” on the label.
A tree-based herbal supplement with centuries of history, sassafras oil has appeared in everything from gumbo to traditional medicines. In 1979, however, it was banned by the FDA when research showed that sassafras oil, especially used in conjunction with safrole oil, can cause cancer, according to Everyday Health.
Skydiving while drunk
Common sense says you shouldn’t skydive while you’re drunk. The United States government says you can’t. Federal law bans consuming alcohol while conducting any “parachute operation.”
Federal regulation from 1960 makes it illegal to sell wine under a brand name that includes the word “zombie.” The law, however, is not an attempt to ward off supernatural ghouls. Wine branding, in fact, can’t include words like “Collins,” “Martini,” “Cuba libre,” or any phrase or word that gives the impression that the wine is related to popular drinks commonly made from distilled spirits.
Commiserating with pirates
Some bans were made to deal with specific problems unique to a specific time, but when the time and problem pass, the law often stays on the books. To this day, federal laws remain in place to prosecute anyone who “consults, combines, confederates, or corresponds with any pirate or robber upon the seas.” Just so there’s no confusion, the pirate doesn’t even have to be committing an act of piracy when these pirate consultations and confederations take place in order for them to be illegal.
Lawn darts was a popular backyard target game in the 1980s that followed the same fundamental principle as horseshoes, but instead involved tossing big, heavy, metal spikes with tail fins on the ends. In 1987, unsupervised children in Riverside, Calif., threw a lawn dart high in the air, and when it came down, it hit a 7-year-old girl—the sister of one of the kids who threw the lawn dart—in the head. She was killed by the impact, which crushed her skull with 23,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, and lawn darts were banned forever.
Toxic metal playgrounds
Even modern, rubberized, age-segregated playgrounds are emergency room magnets, sending 200,000 people to the hospital every year, according to KinderCare. It’s a huge step up, however, from the playgrounds that defined the childhoods of most Americans around or over the age of 40. The federal government, along with most municipalities and states, have banned much of the playground equipment from previous generations, including concrete fall surfaces, lead-painted metal merry-go-rounds, bare metal equipment—which often caused severe burns in summer—and splintery, arsenic-treated wood obstacles.
Like dangerous playgrounds, many Americans middle-aged and older grew up in a time when candy cigarettes were a staple of Little League concession stands everywhere. When the national mood on tobacco began to shift, the obvious marketing of cigarettes to children became taboo, but several national ban attempts failed. Although the word “cigarette” disappeared from the packs after 1970, candy cigarettes are somehow still a thing, although several states ban them outright and virtually all municipalities keep them away from youth sports candy stands.
One of the first synthetic insecticides ever created, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, made huge gains in preventing malaria, typhus, and other insect-borne diseases when it was invented in the 1940s, according to the EPA. In the coming decades, however, it became clear that DDT was a carcinogen that could travel far distances in the atmosphere, accumulated in fatty tissue, and persisted for long periods in the environment. The United States banned DDT in 1972, and most of the world soon followed suit.
According to Quartz, the so-called “helicopter parenting” phenomenon of today can be traced to clackers, a popular 1970s toy made of two heavy acrylic balls on a string. Hundreds of toymakers sold millions of clackers, but they were banned when they proved susceptible to shattering on impact and launching a spray of sharp acrylic shrapnel toward the face and eyes of children. The ban led to a massive expansion in toy safety regulations and shifted the national mood toward greater parental oversight.
According to Middle Tennessee State University, “Some 15 states have anti-mask laws, as do many counties and municipalities.” The first anti-mask laws emerged in New York to deter crime in the mid-19th century, but the movement gained momentum with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and similar terrorist organizations that thrived in anonymity. Today, mask laws don’t target specific groups but are neutrally applied, mostly in attempts at preventing mob action during protests.
Anabolic steroids were already controversial by 1988, but that year, the controversy exploded when runner Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis, won a gold medal, and set a new world record at the Seoul Olympics. Soon after, Johnson’s medal was revoked, and he left the sport in disgrace when steroids were discovered in his urine. Long the dirty little secret of athletic competitions of all stripes, anabolic steroids were banned at the federal level in 1990.
Cigarette machines were once ubiquitous, serving smokers everywhere from pool halls and bowling alleys to rest stops and campuses. Today, however, the FDA bans all cigarette machines except for those in businesses that forbid minors from entering, like strip clubs and bars. In some states, however, the smoking age is 21, not 18, and many states ban cigarette machines altogether no matter the smoking age.
One of the most famous chemical bans in American history took place in 1978 when the EPA outlawed PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which were widely used in plastics, hydraulics, transformers, fire retardants, and electrical equipment. The chemical compound was found to cause cancer, and research showed it lingered in the environment.
The concept of human cloning exists in a murky gray area in the United States, with many states enforcing no laws, others allowing cloning for research purposes but not for reproduction, and others banning it outright. There are no federal laws banning human cloning, but several regulations exist that restrict the funding of projects that involve human cloning.
Dog and cat fur
It’s illegal in the United States to import, sell, buy, produce, advertise, distribute or transport any merchandise made from the pelts or fur of dogs or cats. The one exception is deceased personal pets preserved through taxidermy.
Poachers kill about 30,000 elephants a year, mostly for the ivory in their tusks, despite worldwide bans that have existed for decades, according to National Geographic. The ivory trade has long been banned in the United States, but loopholes existed allowing, for example, people to legally sell old ivory items that were made or purchased before the ban took place. In 2016, however, President Obama closed those loopholes with a near-total ban on all aspects of ivory as a medium of commerce.
For decades, radar detectors gave speeders a moment’s notice to hit the brakes before blue-and-red lights appeared in the rearview mirror. Radar-jamming devices are illegal everywhere, and some states ban radar detectors, as well. Others don’t prohibit radar detectors, per se, but forbid drivers from mounting anything on the windshield.
In 2009, the FDA banned the sale of flavored cigarettes as part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The ban was based on evidence that young smokers are far more likely to start with flavored tobacco than regular cigarettes. The ban includes flavors or aromas like peach, chocolate, lime, rum, and pineapple.
Haitian animal hide drums
It’s illegal to bring drums made of animal hides originating from Haiti into the United States. The ban came about after goat hide drums from Haiti were linked to a case of cutaneous anthrax.
Exposing animal abuse
Several states enforce so-called “ag-gag” laws, which penalize and prosecute whistleblowers who reveal animal abuse and other violations in the American meat industry. Ag-gag laws make it a crime to film or make audio recordings of any agricultural facility or farm, to reveal what you saw in a facility as an employee, or to use deception to gain entry into a facility where animals are raised, housed, and killed for food.
Calling non-meat ‘meat’
According to NPR, several states—particularly agricultural and ranching states like Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota—are moving to ban the labeling of vegetarian food as “meat.” As vegan and vegetarian food gains more mainstream traction every year, the collective meat industry wants labels like “burger,” “sausage,” “jerky,” and “hot dog” reserved only for food products made from the flesh of animals.