San Francisco cares about your health — so much so that they outright banned the sale of e-cigarettes in 2020. As usual for SF, the ultra-progressive city sought to be a leader in the fight against electronic cigarettes, issuing one of the most stringent measures taken in the U.S. However, a recent study shows that the measure was probably a costly mistake. After all, the very bans enforced by the city may well have ended up doing more harm than good.
There’s no reason to argue that smoking is a good thing, whether e-cigarettes or regular. The science is fairly clear on what happens when people smoke, it can be extraordinarily harmful to their bodies. Smoking cigarettes after all, is the leading preventable cause of death in the US, killing just under half a million a year. San Francisco passed the measure as a precautionary principle, saying “This is a decisive step to help prevent another generation of San Francisco children from becoming addicted to nicotine.” But they’re relying on bad science as a basis for their decisions.
For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), knowingly executed a campaign against vaping and e-cigarettes littered with misinformation about the products. It is unfortunate that such an important institution would rely on such tactics, as it takes away from having a genuine conversation. As health care writer Elise Amez-Droz put it, “Exaggerating the severity of a problem in the effort of catching public attention and bringing awareness to a harmful trend is one thing. It’s quite another to paint a highly effective alternative like vaping as a great danger and make it an imaginary public health threat — when it’s not.”
The reality is that the data doesn’t back either the FDA or the city of San Francisco in their claims. A simple look at the Health and Human Services Department can tell one as much. They report a consistent decline in usage of cigarettes in High School going back decades. In 2018, only 3.6% of high school seniors smoked cigarettes daily. Only 5% of high school students had reported smoking a cigarette in the past month. None of this even takes into account solid evidence showing that smoking e-cigarettes is a path to quitting from smoking in general.
In the recent study looking at the ban in San Francisco, researchers studied over 200 young adults in San Francisco who smoked e-cigarettes. The results weren’t all that great for the city. For example, one result they found was that the sale of traditional cigarettes surged in San Francisco. That’s unsurprising, given that the option of e-cigarettes was taken away from smokers. The study also found that the ban was essentially ineffective, as people just went to retailers online and out of the city to get the thing they wanted. The ban also did not curb the use of flavored e-cigarettes, since 60% of people still used them after the ban.
Additionally, instituting the ban did the city little favors with their citizens. Most of the people who commented in the study about the ban did not have flattering things to say. They described the ban as “stupid,” “ridiculous,” and invasive. One commenter astutely stated that banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes “does nothing except make people want it more.”
Prohibition style bans do nothing to solve the problem cities like San Francisco seek to answer. It’s as if they’ve forgotten what happened in Prohibition — in banning alcohol across the states, Prohibition made the process of buying alcohol less safe for everyone. While the culture things that popped up were fascinating like speakeasies, you also saw gang wars break out and perverse incentives show up when both Baptists and Bootleggers were on the same side for keeping alcohol banned, even though the two groups fundamentally thought about the substance differently.
Trying to restrict cigarettes based on age wasn’t much more effective, as it drove the sale into less safe environments. Rather than have a conversation that could be uncomfortable for a parent with their child, San Francisco needlessly closes the door and demonizes the practice, which does little to address the overarching issue of children smoking underage.
The issue of teenage vaping is certainly prevalent, and it should be addressed. However, in doing so, the city of San Francisco must acknowledge its policy failure in this arena. Their ban isn’t achieving their stated goals, preventing the city’s citizens from having an option to pursue that could help them overcome their addiction to smoking. It’s time to have a real discussion on the issue, so policymakers can come up with an innovative solution — without engaging in policy that’s been proven ineffective time and time again.
James Czerniawski is a Young Voices Associate Contributor. His work has been featured in The National Interest, RealClear Policy, The Salt Lake Tribune, and more. Follow him on Twitter @JamesCz19.
Published in Real Clear Policy.