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October 18, 2019

Legislators in Albany County, New York are considering a local ordinance that would prohibit the sales of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, pipe and smokeless tobacco, and electronic cigarettes and vaping devices. Premium cigars and hookah products would be exempt.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Paul Miller (D-Guilderkand), intends to “reduce the use of vaping and flavored tobacco products, particularly among youth.” Although addressing youth use of tobacco products is laudable, there is little evidence that flavor bans reduce youth e-cigarette use. Further, youth use of other tobacco products, including cigars, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, is at an all time low. Undoubtedly, such a ban would create a booming black market for flavored e-cigarettes and several types of other tobacco products that are consumed legally (as of now) by millions of American adults.

The Heartland Institute examined the effects of flavor bans, finding these measures to have no impact on youth e-cigarette use. For example, Santa Clara County, California, banned flavored tobacco products to age-restricted stores in 2014. Despite this, youth e-cigarette use increased. In the 2015-16 California Youth Tobacco Survey (CYTS), 7.5 percent of Santa Clara high school students reported current use of e-cigarettes. In the 2017-18 CYTS, this increased to 10.7 percent.

Further, flavors have helped millions of adults transition from combustible cigarettes to tobacco harm reduction products. Indeed, a 2018 survey of nearly 70,000 American adults noted that 83.2 percent and 72.3 percent of survey respondents reported vaping fruit and dessert flavors, respectively. Further, only 20 percent of respondents reported using tobacco flavors at point of e-cigarette initiation.

Youth use of tobacco products, other than electronic cigarettes, is at an all time low. In 1997, youth rates of combustible cigarette  use peaked. In the 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 36.4 percent of high school students reported smoking cigarettes in the 30 days preceding the survey. Further, 9.3 percent and 22 percent of high school students reported current use of smokeless tobacco and cigars, respectively. Moreover, 42.7 percent of high school students reported using tobacco products including “cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, or cigars during the 30 days preceding the survey.”

Results from the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey indicate a dramatic decrease of tobacco use by high school students. For example, 27.1 percent of high school students reported using any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, hookah, and pipe tobacco. In 2018, only 8.1 percent of high school students reported using tobacco cigarettes. Further, only 7.6 percent and 5.9 percent reported using cigars and smokeless tobacco products, respectively.

The substantial decline in youth cigarette use is likely attributable to electronic cigarettes. Although youth use of e-cigarettes is worrisome, the 2018 data indicates that fewer students are vaping than when cigarette use was at an all-time high. In 2018, only 20.8 percent of students reported using e-cigarettes, which is a huge decrease from 1997, when 36 percent of high school students reported combustible cigarette use. Use of any and all tobacco products were still significantly lower in 2018 than 1997. Indeed, tobacco product use has decreased from 42.7 percent of high school students reporting tobacco use in 1997 to only 27.1 percent of high school students reporting tobacco product use in 2018. It is disingenuous that lawmakers would move to ban flavored tobacco products now while turning a blind eye to youth tobacco use when it was much more common.

Further, such bans will likely produce a big uptick in business on black markets. A 2012 study in the journal Addiction found a quarter of menthol smokers surveyed would find a way to purchase, even illegally, menthol cigarettes if a ban comes into effect. Even worse, there is little evidence that such bans would help smokers to quit. A 2015 study in Nicotine & Tobacco Research concluded that only 28 percent of menthol smokers would give up cigarettes if menthol cigarettes were banned.

Albany County residents (and New Yorkers, in general) are already all too familiar with the crazy consequences (intended and unintended) that come with heavy regulations and taxes on tobacco products. Because of its exorbitant taxes, New York City is currently “the cigarette smuggling capital in the nation,” with a booming black market that was attributable to approximately $740 million in lost tobacco revenue in 2015. Albany County has also been subject to black markets, even without the proposed ban in place. As recently as October 11, 2019, New York state tax investigators “seized more than 7,4000 untaxed cigars and 3.6 pounds of untaxed loose tobacco” in Albany County.

Youth use of tobacco products other than e-cigarettes is at an all time low. Although addressing youth use of vaping products is worthwhile, flavor bans have had no reduction on youth e-cigarette use. Further, a draconian ban on all flavored tobacco products will likely force adults to rely on black markets for the products they desire. Worse, an all-out ban on flavored e-cigarettes will almost surely lead hundreds of thousands of former smokers back to combustible cigarettes. Undoubtedly, a black market will fill the void in the market because the law of supply and demand is always victorious. Lawmakers should refrain from enacting brainless bans and focus on adequately funding programs that address youth tobacco use, including education and prevention efforts.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute or Tobacco Harm Reduction 101.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Link Majority of Vaping-Related Hospitalizations to THC: Welcome
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