Efforts to ban low-risk nicotine products like e-cigarettes and oral nicotine pouches continue to gain momentum, despite their potential benefits. The 2005 black comedy film “Thank You for Smoking” depicts the efforts of three lobbyists representing the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries. However, the anti-smoking movement has achieved significant success in tackling smoking issues. The national adult smoking rate in the United States has dropped from 42% in 1965 to less than 11.5% today, while the youth smoking rate has decreased from 36% in 1997 to 1.9% today. Nevertheless, as the movement’s goal shifted from a “smoke-free world” to a “nicotine-free world,” it has inadvertently become its own worst enemy.
This is not just a problem of declining profits. It is a case of fanaticism prevailing over public health. I am referring to the increasingly successful efforts to ban low-risk nicotine products such as e-cigarettes and oral nicotine pouches. For example, California voters supported a law in 2022 that banned flavored tobacco products, including much less harmful options (as well as mint cigarettes and other dangerous products). In other words, it is advisable for individuals to use nicotine delivery devices that have lower risks (although still not entirely “safe”) rather than those that pose greater dangers. Many individuals who use addictive substances are unlikely to choose to quit, hence helping them reduce their risks by 95% seems like a valuable public health goal. However, these numbers have not convinced health officials, politicians, or voters, which is why California and some other states, as well as the federal government under the leadership of the Biden administration, continue to pursue an abstinent-oriented approach. Zero is seen as the only acceptable number.
Public health officials often accuse supporters of reducing the harm caused by tobacco (i.e., promoting the use of low-risk products) of being tools of big tobacco companies. I have discussed this issue with politicians and activists, but they have not provided a reasonable counter-argument against the claim that banning low-risk products would only increase the use of deadly combustible cigarettes. They believe that zero use is the only option for tobacco (although this may not apply to other unhealthy products and behaviors).
However, the latest data shows that the ban on e-cigarettes is the most effective way to promote cigarette sales. The ban on flavors has been in place for a long enough time to study its impact. A recent study conducted by Yale University, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, has confirmed the reduction in harm. The Yale Daily News summarized this study, in which: “An analysis of retail sales from 2018 to 2023 has revealed that restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes have led to an increase in sales of traditional cigarettes. The study indicates that traditional cigarettes are more dangerous than e-cigarettes, and current regulations targeting flavored e-cigarettes may pose a threat to public health…The research also points out that the disproportionate growth in sales of traditional cigarettes is most prevalent among underage individuals’ preferred brands.”
This confirms the findings of a 2021 report which found that San Francisco’s flavored tobacco ban was “associated with an increase in smoking rates among high school students under the age of 18 relative to other school districts.” A study published in ScienceDirect in 2022 also found that Massachusetts’ ban on e-cigarettes resulted in a 7.5% increase in cigarette sales.
In a recent issue, Reason magazine explained that Brazil has taken an exceptionally tough stance on implementing a flavor ban nationwide, cracking down on the black market through deployments of the military and police. The outcome? “Brazil now boasts one of the world’s largest cigarette markets.”
A new study published in the Tobacco Control magazine tracked consumer behavior in California following the maintenance of the spice ban. According to Fox 5 News, “researchers found that query volume for tobacco products on online retailers was about 194% higher than the expected levels, while query volume for cigarettes was about 162% higher than expected.” The percentage was even higher for e-cigarette products. Naturally, the initial response from health advocates is to call for more regulations to restrict online sales to Californians. It may not come as a surprise that about 50% of cigarette consumption in California comes from illegal sources.
As the availability of low-risk products becomes increasingly difficult, more people will turn to high-risk products. Every tobacco-related product sold in the state comes with a warning that nicotine is an addictive substance. Individuals addicted to substances often seek ways to satisfy their cravings. What is the point of banning the least harmful nicotine products while still ensuring access to the most dangerous ones? By the way, it is worth mentioning that the primary health issues do not stem from nicotine itself, as it is a relatively benign stimulant, but rather from the chemicals inhaled while smoking.
Public health officials pointed out a crisis in teenage e-cigarette use to justify their flavor ban, but the National Youth Tobacco Survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a significant decline in the proportion of teenagers currently using e-cigarettes. The data showed that the usage rate among high school students decreased from 28% to 10%, and among adolescents from 11% to 5% in 2019. As the flavor ban only recently came into effect, it cannot be attributed to this recent policy but is more likely the result of the 21-year-old purchase law.