Congress is poised to eliminate half of the tobacco industry. After conflating tobacco product flavors with youth vaping, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is now advancing a ban on all flavored tobacco products, which would be the most extensive prohibition since alcohol in the 1920s.
States like Ohio and Kentucky have flirted with banning e-cigarette flavors, but this bill is coming for much of the industry.
Contrary to the name of the bill, the “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act,” there is, in fact, no “youth tobacco epidemic.” Although there have been recent increases in youth vaping, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, teen use of cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, hookah and pipe tobacco are all now at their lowest rates in U.S. history.
Menthol cigarettes, mint chewing tobacco and grape cigars are being used less and less by teens, but are all among the products that will soon become contraband if this bill passes. The idea behind this prohibition is the argument that flavors are uniquely appealing to young people and that the existence of flavors is a tactic employed by the tobacco industry to entice and addict young customers. But the claim isn’t borne out in the data.
The states with the highest relative distribution of menthol cigarettes actually have the lowest rates of youth smoking. Despite Ohio selling 46 percent more menthol cigarettes as a percentage of all cigarettes than is sold in Kentucky, 24 percent fewer of the state’s youth smoke in comparison. In fact, Kentucky has the second-highest youth smoking rate in the country, after West Virginia. But as menthol has grown as a share of the total cigarette market, teens have actually developed a preference for regular cigarettes. This alone should convince lawmakers that tobacco flavors have little to do with youth use.
Despite the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey showing that flavors had little to do with teens trying vaping products, the Food and Drug Administration moved forward with a flavor ban on all cartridge-based e-cigarette products. Congress then took further action in December and raised the age to purchase tobacco to 21.
Yet regulators aren’t satisfied with the massive distortions they’ve already introduced to the market. With the hysteria of vaping-related lung injuries caused by marijuana products fresh on the nation’s mind, politicians have disingenuously conflated this tragedy with the e-cigarette market. Rep. Pallone suggested the executives of vaping companies of might be killing people, without offering a single case of lung illness being attributed to regulated e-cigarettes. The push against vaping is incredibly ironic because the vaping industry is actually saving millions of lives.
Just about every single prestigious medical journal that has reviewed the research — JAMA, The BMJ, Annals of Internal Medicine and the New England Journal of Medicine — has concluded that e-cigarettes are substantially safer to use than combustible cigarettes. The BMJ, in particular, concluded that if every adult smoker in the U.S. switched to e-cigarettes, we’d see 6.6 million fewer people die prematurely from smoking. Yet this bill would eliminate the vast majority of vapor products and prevent this public health miracle.
Lastly, menthol smokers actually smoke considerably less than regular smokers, so it’s odd that they’re the target of public health advocates. Regardless, a menthol ban would welcome an illicit market. And according to The BMJ, about 85 percent of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes. If we start proportionately sending people of color to jail over menthol cigarettes, this country will hit peak absurdity. Eric Garner lost his life over petty tobacco law enforcement, and it’s no surprise that his mother has opposed the menthol bans.
It goes without saying that we want don’t want young people, who aren’t adults yet, using tobacco. But the trends indicate that teens are already fleeing from the most dangerous tobacco products. Deaths from nonflavored cigarettes dwarf those from opioids, cocaine, guns, cars, war, alcohol and suicide — combined — as smoking kills about 480,000 Americans every year. And the plethora of bans Rep. Frank Pallone’s bill seeks to enforce would mostly just reduce access to the safest smoking alternatives.
This column originally appeared in the Columbus Dispatch.