Banning Flavored Tobacco Products is Just Blowing Smoke

On September 20, 2019, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced that his state would be the first in the country to ban flavored electronic cigarettes. In a statement announcing the new rules, Governor Cuomo stated “It is undeniable that vaping companies are deliberately using flavors like bubblegum, Captain Crunch and cotton candy to get young people hooked on e-cigarettes – it’s a public health crisis and it ends today.” Since New York passed its ban, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, California, 300 localities and the federal government have passed restrictions or outright bans on flavored electronic cigarettes, or vapes. Washington, Michigan, Connecticut, and Utah currently have flavor bans under review in the courts.

While the stated goal of banning the availability of flavored e-cigarettes is designed to reduce harm and improve the health of Americans, advocates of prohibition ignore the profoundly damaging consequences of limiting consumer access to alternative products that are much safer and healthier than smoking traditional combustible products.

Producers of electronic cigarettes form an important part of the twenty-first-century economy. An Economic Impact Study produced by the Vapor Technology Association found that the industry contributes $24.46 billion in economic output and employs 166,007 people. The industry also generated $15.09 billion in federal, state, and local taxes.

Access to flavored e-cigarette products is an important factor in encouraging smokers to switch from harmful combustible products to safer electronic products. A study from researchers at the Battelle Public Health Center for Tobacco Research in Seattle Washington, Department of Food Science and Technology at Oregon State University, and School of Public Health at the University of Maryland found that the sweet flavor of electronic products encouraged smokers to make the switch away from harmful combustible products to safer electronic products.

This link is imperative to recognize because it suggests consumers shifted behavior to a healthier alternative because of flavorings. The risk is that if flavors are not widely available, those who made the switch will simply return to combustible alternatives that are profoundly more harmful to consumers’ health.

This trend has been shown to occur throughout numerous studies that demonstrate limiting access to flavored tobacco alternatives only serves to increase overall levels of smoking. An April 2020 study by public health experts at the University of Memphis, Georgetown’s O’Neil Institute for National & Global Health, and the University of Florida illustrate that while comprehensive bans on flavored electronic cigarettes decreased their usage in the San Francisco area, the bans also saw individuals return to smoking combustible products such as cigarettes or cigars.

The fact that comprehensive bans on flavored electronic cigarettes led people to return to smoking should concern policymakers as they show banning a product that has fewer health risks will ultimately see consumers returning to using the more harmful alternative.

Flavored electronic cigarettes are the most effective way to help people quit smoking traditional combustible products. Studies have shown that people who used electronic cigarettes were more likely to remain smoke-free for over two years than those who used alternative methods. Nicotine patches, another method to help smokers quit, were only able to keep 15% of people smoke-free for 22 weeks.  

Flavored electronic cigarettes have also been shown to keep teenagers and young adults away from the harmful effects of smoking combustible products. Gallup studies suggest that while young adults are using flavored electronic cigarettes at much higher levels than other age groups, they are smoking at much lower levels. The Gallup study shows that only 16% of 18-29-year-olds use cigarettes while 20% use e-cigarettes. For people aged 30 to 49, 23% use cigarettes while only 9% use e-cigarettes.

This data is important because it indicates that younger people are choosing healthier alternatives to smoking traditional combustible products and the availability of flavored electronic cigarettes has stopped younger people from taking up smoking harmful combustible cigarettes and cigars.

While states are currently moving to limit access to flavored e-cigarettes, scientific studies indicate they should be moving in the other direction and increase the availability of alternatives to traditional combustible products. A 2017 study shows that if more smokers switched to e-cigarettes, there could be 6.6 million fewer premature deaths each year. This study served to reaffirm a growing scientific consensus that reducing the use of combustible products in favor of e-cigarettes can result in significantly better health outcomes.

What is readily apparent and largely undeniable is that if policymakers want to reduce the number of people smoking harmful traditional tobacco products, they should not be increasing restrictions on flavored electronic cigarettes but should instead ensure they remain accessible to those of legal age to smoke.  If the objective of banning flavored electronic cigarettes is harm reduction, it is clear the policy is self-defeating because it not only encourages the use of harmful traditional combustible tobacco products, but it could lead to more avoidable deaths each year.

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