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Tobacco Flavor Bans: More Harm than Good

Banning flavored tobacco and nicotine products is the latest salvo in the decades-long war on smoking. Under the guise of “protecting children,” a number of states and localities, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, have implemented or are considering such bans.

The Big Picture

The harm from smoking cigarettes is well-documented, and governments around the world have taken aggressive action to prevent people from smoking and pressure smokers to quit. High excise taxes, regulating the ingredients and the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, and bans on menthol and/or other flavors are justified on the grounds of protecting public health. But like much of what government does, the regulation of tobacco and non-tobacco nicotine products (vapes) results in unintended consequences and in some instances actually increases the harm that government set out to prevent.

The Details

  • The bans do not promote harm reduction; in fact, the bans may exacerbate the harm to public health.
  1. When San Francisco banned flavored products, high school students’ smoking rates began to increase relative to the students in similar high-school districts.
  2. This study was conducted by the Yale School of Public Health. The study’s author surmised that teens might choose to vape rather than smoke because of the flavors, and if flavors are banned they’ll choose cigarettes.
  3. Flavored nicotine products–including vapes, smokeless tobacco, and cigars–help adults quit smoking. When those products are not available, we can surmise that adults, like teens, may choose cigarettes.
  • The bans do not reduce sales of flavored products; instead, sales shift to other states/localities, Native American reservations, or the black market.
  1. When Massachusetts implemented a ban in 2020, their sales plummeted; but sales in neighboring states (particularly New Hampshire and Rhode Island) increased. The overall sales in the Northeast went up slightly after the Massachusetts ban was implemented.
  2. Cigarette smuggling is already a problem due to high excise taxes. Flavored bans would certainly accelerate smuggling, creating headaches and increased costs for law enforcement, lower tax revenues for states and localities, and an enhanced funding source for terrorist groups.
  3. Untaxed products harm thousands of small businesses, including vape shops, convenience stores, and gas stations/
  4. Unregulated products–particularly liquid nicotine–may contain dangerous chemicals that pose a danger to consumers.

Why It Matters

Banning flavored tobacco and nicotine products treats adults like children, unable to enjoy products that are “bad” for them–while undercutting the important public health goal of encouraging smokers who can’t or won’t quit to switch to safer products (the “quit or die” philosophy of some tobacco control advocates). Such bans deprive states of revenue, harm small businesses, endanger consumers, and increase law enforcement costs–while channeling more revenue to organized crime and terrorist organizations.

Instead of limiting adult choice, government policy should be focused on preventing underage kids from getting access to tobacco and nicotine products. While enforcing the nationwide prohibition on sales to minors under 21 years of age will not completely prevent minors’ access to these products–the allure of “forbidden fruit” is difficult for teens to resist–early evidence shows the flavor bans may actually increase cigarette smoking among teens. In sum, flavor bans are yet another example of activist government doing much harm and little good.