California voters took a giant step backward in tobacco harm reduction by passing Proposition 31, a permanent ban on flavored tobacco products and tobacco product flavor enhancers. California is the fifth state to institute a permanent flavor ban on tobacco products, including mint and menthol cigarettes, flavored e-cigarettes (vaping and unburned heat), and smokeless tobacco. The reason given for the ban is to prevent young people from vaping and to save lives and taxpayers’ money by avoiding tobacco-related health costs. However, Proposition 31 is flawed and will not achieve any of these goals.
Playing on the nerve and using scare tactics about addiction has been a key strategy in enacting flavor bans, but among the many problems with these arguments is the fact that youth vaping has significantly decreases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there were “about 1.73 million fewer current youth users of tobacco products in 2020 (4.47 million) compared to 2019 (6.20 million )”, representing a 28% reduction in young smokers.
In addition to not solving a problem that does not exist among young users of tobacco products, banning flavored tobacco products has very serious harmful consequences for adults trying to quit smoking. From 2007 to 2015, more than 3 million American adults used tobacco harm reduction (THR) products to quit smoking. Instead of an outright ban on these products, states should aim to enforce laws already in place to limit consumption by minors. Banning flavored e-cigarettes, which are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, is counterintuitive to saving lives. Vaping alone can reduce tobacco-related deaths because it is 95% less harmful than traditional smoking.
Not only is there a public health concern regarding California’s misguided ban, but also a negative economic impact by restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products. In 2019 and 2020, menthol-flavored cigarettes accounted for 37% of all cigarette sales in the United States, according to the CDC. If prohibited, the lost tax revenue will reduce government budgets and require either higher taxes or spending cuts to offset the financial loss.
Flavor bans do not work and are ineffective. They also eliminate options for adult smokers who want to quit. There is an economic impact when small businesses cannot sell the products that consumers demand. Permanent bans on flavored tobacco products open the door to the dangers of the black market, jeopardizing consumer safety with unregulated products. In December 2020, Customs and Border Protection along with the Food and Drug Administration seized 33,681 totaling $719,453 worth of unapproved e-cigarettes at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The fight against counterfeit e-cigarettes is an ongoing battle and eliminating regulated products from the market only compounds the problem.
If public health is truly a top priority for the state of California, the state should focus on the facts about flavored THR products and aim to educate consumers about safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes instead of banning products that help adults quit smoking.