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January 3, 2019


Lawmakers in California have proposed legislation that would prohibit tobacco retailers “from selling, offering for sale, or possessing with the intent to sell or offer for sale, a flavored tobacco product.” The legislation would include banning flavorings in e-cigarettes and vaping devices, which are also called tobacco harm reduction (THR) products, and impose fines for failure to comply.

Lawmakers insist the legislation is designed to “curb the usage of [THR] products by young people.” While surveys indicate youth vaping in 2018 was higher than in 2017, much of the youth vaping data is inconclusive and relies on faulty information. For example, both the 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey and the 2018 Monitoring the Future Survey found increases in youth vaping occurring more than one time per month, but this is a misleading figure because it doesn’t make clear whether a person vaped twice and then never vaped again or vaped multiple times per day every single day of the month.

More notably, youth combustible cigarette smoking is at an all-time low, with “only 3.6 percent of high school seniors smoking daily, compared to 22.4 percent two decades ago.” The often-repeated assertion youth vaping leads to the use of combustible tobacco in the future is not valid. As Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids points out, the U.S. high school smoking rate decreased from 2009 to 2016, from 17.2 percent to 7.6 percent, despite the fact that during this period, e-cigarettes became more widely available.

While preventing youth access is a laudable goal, California already has restrictions in place to do so. In 2016, the Golden State became the second state in the nation to increase the purchasing age of tobacco products, including THR products, from 18 to 21.

Vaping advocates overwhelmingly support banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. The Smoke Free Alternative Trade Association provides “Age to Vape” signage to vape shops endorsing local laws, “to show that [the] industry supports sensible age restrictions.” More than 1,300 companies participated in the program in 2015.

The Consumers for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA) is another advocacy group that “supports laws that prohibit underaged sales and urges strict enforcement of laws” that ban access to e-cigarettes for young people.

Similarly, the Vapor Technology Association, which represents vaping manufacturers, requires members to “refrain from knowingly marketing Vapor Products to Minors, which is strictly prohibited.”

As a disruptive technology, e-cigarettes and vaping devices provide relief to millions of smokers as an effective cessation product. Flavors are necessary to THR. A 2016 CASAA survey of 27,343 e-cigarette users found 72 percent of respondents “credited tasty flavors with helping them give up tobacco.” In the largest vaping survey conducted to date, which consisted of nearly 70,000 American adult vapers, researchers found flavors play a vital role in the use of e-cigarettes. Nearly 95 percent of the respondents reported “that they were ever smokers,” and many cited using flavors at the point of initiation. There is real concern that should former smokers be forced to use only the flavors that simulate traditional tobacco cigarettes, they will return to cigarettes.

A 2015 R Street Policy Study concluded the presence of flavorings in electronic cigarettes greatly helps smokers quit using traditional tobacco cigarettes. The author notes that concerns over “flavoring as a tool to recruit children are overblown,” and the author states there is no “evidence that suggests children are drawn to tobacco products specifically because of flavor.”

Electronic cigarettes have been examined extensively over the past several years, and numerous public health organizations have found these products to be significantly less harmful than combustible cigarettes, with some urging their use as replacement for combustible cigarettes.

Numerous organizations including Public Health England, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and the American Cancer Society have acknowledged the reduced harm of electronic cigarettes. In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians found the “long-term health risks associated with smoking [e-cigarettes] … are unlikely to exceed 5% of those associated with smoked tobacco products.”

Rather than limit THR products for the millions of adult smokers addicted to combustible cigarettes, policymakers should embrace and promote the use of e-cigarettes. These products have served as effective cessation devices that have been proven repeatedly to improve public health.

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.

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