San Francisco, Flavored Vapes, and the Next Prohibition Disaster
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San Francisco, Flavored Vapes, and the Next Prohibition Disaster

If passed, Proposition E will prohibit not just the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars but also flavored e-cigarette products.

San Francisco voters are heading to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether theirs will be the first city in the nation to ban all flavored tobacco products. If passed, Proposition E will prohibit not just the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars but also flavored e-cigarette products.

Prohibition always presents problems but what makes Prop E unique is that it intends not just to ban lethal categories of tobacco products but products that actually help people quit smoking.

It’s alarming to see campaigners purportedly working for the public health bracket e-cigarettes (which have been conclusively shown to be far safer than cigarettes) in the same category as a pack of Newports. A rational policy would distinguish between products that kill half of their lifelong users, such as cigarettes, and products that are helping people avoid that very fate.

Despite the scare stories, there is no credible evidence vaping is a gateway to smoking. In fact, over the same time period that teen experimentation with vaping rose most sharply, smoking rates fell at an accelerated rate and are now at their lowest level on record. Vaping itself may also be falling out of fashion with teens, with use of e-cigarettes dropping 30 percent between 2015 and 2016 among high school students.

E-cigarettes are also significantly less popular than a host of other adult-only activities. In 2017, 33 percent of 12th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days, 22.9 percent said they used marijuana, while just 11 percent said they vaped with nicotine.

While e-cigarette flavors may play a role in the willingness of some teens to experiment with vaping, its significance is often exaggerated in comparison to other factors. A 2017 study found “almost 90 percent of youth vapers surveyed by the NIH and FDA endorsed reducing the harm of tobacco cigarettes as their reason for choosing e-cigarettes – significantly more than the 81 percent who cited availability of flavors.”

Even among those teens who said flavors were important to their e-cigarette use, 92 percent also said harm reduction was their reason for vaping. In an ideal world, kids would never use alcohol, marijuana, or e-cigarettes. But youth experimentation is hardly a reasonable basis for the prohibition.

Not all smokers quit in the same way and to make a successful transition away from cigarettes it is vital they have access to a range of products so they can discover what works best for them and e-cigarette flavors are an important part of this mix.

One of the largest surveys of regular e-cigarette users ever conducted found frequent e-cigarette users are now most likely to have started vaping with products flavored to taste like fruit or a fruit drink and are increasingly likely to have started vaping with dessert or pastry flavors. Limiting these options means fewer opportunities for adults to successfully switch from smoking to vaping.

A study published last week examining the possible impact of a ban on all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, concluded such a ban would “likely reduce the smoking/vaping rates, but the use of cigarettes would be higher than in the status quo.”

Supporters of Prop E have, however, been blessed in one of their opponents. The tobacco company R.J. Reynolds provided most of the finance for the opposition. To most voters, Big Tobacco remains the unacceptable face of capitalism and it’s easy to distract attention away from the substance of the issue by focusing attention on one of the country’s most reviled industries.

But supporters of prohibition are not without ideological or financial interests of their own. As Competitive Enterprise Institute Fellow Michelle Minton points out, these groups benefit from a wealth of taxpayer support for their message, as well as financial support from major pharmaceutical companies that sell nicotine replacement therapies which are direct competitors to e-cigarettes.

The consequences of the Prop E debate will extend far beyond San Francisco. If it passes, anti-e-cigarette activists will be validated in their belief that so long as you proclaim your concern is for children you are justified in distorting the facts in whatever way you see fit. If it fails, Big Tobacco will get the blame and the crusade against flavored e-cigarettes will continue. Left out of the debate are those smokers who want to quit and need every tool possible to help them do so.

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

Guy Bentley is director of consumer freedom at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.