According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which monitors health-related behaviors that cause death among youth, San Francisco’s ban on flavored tobacco products was associated with increased smoking among high school students. On Tuesday, June 29, 2021, a divided District of Columbia (DC) Council followed San Francisco’s lead and passed a bill prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products.
While well-intentioned, DC Council members should look at the experience of San Francisco and other jurisdictions to understand why these prohibitions do not live up to their lofty public health ambitions.
Although the bill’s purpose of promoting public health and deterring underage smoking is admirable, the bill’s implementation can have adverse effects on DC’s black communities, increase youth smoking, and create a black market for flavored tobacco products.
After San Francisco passed its ban on flavored tobacco products in June 2019, studies have shown it failed to meet its objective of curbing youth smoking. After the ban, youths in San Francisco were 2.24 times more likely to smoke than in other jurisdictions that allowed the sale of flavored tobacco products. Given the failure of San ‘Francisco’s ban, it is very probable that DC’s ban will only exacerbate underage smoking rather than minimizing it.
The ban on flavored tobacco products will create a void in the market that will see consumers turn to the black market with no protections for consumers. When Massachusetts banned flavored tobacco products in June 2020, for example, it created an “illegal tobacco trade along Interstate 95 on the East Coast” that, today, is a “$10 billion industry.”
Black market products will also endanger the health and safety of the District’s youth. The shift from a legal, taxed, and regulated market to an illegal and unregulated market will only put the health and safety of DC’s youth at risk. In addition, the health consequences of smoking black market products can cause devastating respiratory illnesses such as lung disorders, pulmonary disease, and chronic pneumonia.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaping cartridges obtained on the black market have caused more than 1,600 lung injuries. Eliminating all flavored tobacco products from a regulated market that is designed to protect consumers’ health and safety will only endanger consumers’ lives.
After Massachusetts’s ban, consumers’ demand for cheap and available products continued, and they turned to unregulated THC products on the black market. Unfortunately, these products were contaminated by fungal infections and mold, leading to fifty-seven deaths and 2,500 injuries. These deaths and injuries were entirely avoidable had consumers been allowed to purchase regulated products from the market.
The enforcement of the bill could also have a significant impact on people of color. Creating such a ban on flavored tobacco products could lead to more policing in black communities. While African-Americans smoke at a lower rate than white Americans, 80% of black smokers choose menthol as their preferred choice, a product that will be banned.
District police officers could use the ban to harass black smokers leading to an increasing divide between the police and black communities. An analysis conducted by the Commission of Racial Equity warned DC flavor ban could exacerbate racial inequality in the city. This is not an abstract concern as enforcing smoking laws resulted in the death of Eric Garner, who was believed to be selling illegal cigarettes.
The district’s ban on all flavored tobacco products is beyond doubt well-intentioned. However, the adverse effects of implementing such laws can exacerbate other issues that harm consumers and residents. The ban will expose consumers to more dangerous goods on the black market and potentially trigger law enforcement actions that can disproportionately impact people of color. The council should reconsider its decision and look for policy solutions that don’t inflict more harm they prevent.