Opinion: Flavor bans won't fight tobacco or improve health

A demonstrator vapes during a 2019 rally outside of the White House to protest the proposed vaping flavor ban in Washington, D.C.

A demonstrator vapes during a 2019 rally outside of the White House to protest the proposed vaping flavor ban in Washington, D.C.

Jose Luis Magana / AFP via Getty Images

As COVID-19 continues to ravage America’s health and economy, Connecticut’s politicians have finally set their sights on what really matters right now: flavored tobacco products. State lawmakers recently joined officials in Bridgeport in calling for a ban on flavored tobacco products, mirroring similar proposals in Maryland and California and existing bans in states such as Massachusetts.

There are clearly pertinent public health concerns that these bills attempt to address — tobacco smoking causes the premature deaths of more than 480,000 Americans a year. There’s also widespread concern that these products are attracting teenagers to a damaging habit that could take a decade or more off their lifespans.

However, these laws fail to distinguish between combustible tobacco products and reduced harm alternatives, such as vapes. In doing so, they undermine rather than support public health since vapers will be pushed onto more dangerous and carcinogenic methods of satiating their nicotine cravings.

The bans will also cause untold damage to small businesses and their workers who are already struggling to stay afloat due to the pandemic, while delivering windfalls to contraband smugglers. They’ll also drain policing resources amid increasing crime rates. And contrary to claims from politicians such as state Sen. Marilyn Moore (D-Bridgeport), they’re likely to disproportionately and adversely impact smokers from minority communities, rather than help them.

E-cigarettes, colloquially known as vapes, are at least 95 percent less harmful than combustible tobacco. Vapes are also widely recognized by eminent international health authorities such as Britain’s Royal College of Physicians, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, and France’s National Academies of Medicine and Pharmacy as evidence-backed smoking cessation aids. Studies show they are at least twice as effective in aiding cessation as alternative nicotine replacement therapies, like patches or gums.

By presenting flavor bans as a “tobacco control” or “public health” measure, legislators ignore extensive research confirming that pleasant flavors are a crucial component of what makes reduced-harm vaping products a more attractive alternative to more harmful tobacco products. And localities that have already experimented with flavor bans have seen vapers return to conventional products, like cigarettes, to get their nicotine fix — thereby causing significant damage to their health.

Those lobbying for flavored vapes to be banned cite fears that pleasant vape flavors could draw youths toward smoking. However, these claims are entirely unsubstantiated. Evidence instead shows that vape flavors pull adult smokers away from a more harmful habit, without contributing to youth smoking. Given that flavor bans won’t curb youth smoking, and are likely to push adult vapers onto cigarettes, what could their justification be?

In any case, the sale of vapes to minors is already illegal regardless of flavoring. Conversely, age verification laws won’t apply to the smugglers whom the bills benefit. Tobacco smuggling syndicates are multimillion-dollar global enterprises that are typically engaged in other illicit activities, like human trafficking and terrorism. They are recognized by the US State Department and Australian Federal Police as a national security threat. Sadly, lawmakers advocating prohibition have failed to learn the lessons of Capone’s heyday.

And this windfall comes at the expense of the very states that enact such laws, while benefiting their neighbors. Massachusetts introduced a flavored tobacco ban in mid-2020. Six months later, cigarette sales in the state had declined by 17.7 million. However, sales in neighboring New Hampshire and Rhode Island increased by 18.9 million over that time as smokers crossed state lines to stock up. This has already cost Massachusetts more than $73 million in lost tax revenue, exacerbating shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These figures don’t even include additional costs to public policing resources caused by increasing their responsibilities.

Worryingly, those who suffer the most from the law could be communities of color. Flavor bans, such as the Maryland proposal, typically include menthol cigarettes, which are especially popular among Black Americans even though their demographic smokes less than their White peers. Organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), note that prohibitions of any kind tend to disproportionately impact Americans of color. And this will especially ring true for menthol cigarette bans.

Given that Black Americans are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses, and less likely to quit successfully relative to other groups despite smoking fewer cigarettes on average, it seems especially counterproductive to make cessation even harder by banning flavored vapes.

The idea of lowering the legal sales of flavored tobacco products might make politicians and bureaucrats feel good. But that’ll be little comfort to the small businesses, workers and innocent citizens harmed by these ill-advised bans. Public health interventions should be determined by evidence. Not by discredited prohibitionist ideology.

Satya Marar is a policy analyst, senior contributor at Young Voices, former policy director of Legalise Vaping Australia, and author of Tobacco Harm Reduction: A formula to save 500,000 Australian lives .”