The following is a version of testimony presented to the Columbus City Council Health and Human Services Committee on Nov. 11, 2022.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Jacob James Rich, and I am a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Value-Based Care Research pursuing my Ph.D. at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. I am also a health care policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit policy research organization. I write academic research on how to reduce tobacco use and was recently awarded Case Western’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) award to pursue research that addresses health disparities among marginalized populations.
The potential regulation of flavored tobacco in the city of Columbus is designed to reduce tobacco use, particularly among communities of color. Given that rates of lung disease among black Americans are higher than other populations, even amid lower rates of historic tobacco use, pursuing interventions to reduce smoking rates in this population should be applauded. However, there is little evidence that comprehensive tobacco flavor bans significantly reduce rates of smoking among adults or youth, and the criminal justice implications of a menthol ban may, in fact, further exacerbate health disparities in the black community.
Policymakers should be concerned about the differential racial impact of this regulation. Menthol cigarettes are preferred by the black population. Therefore, a menthol cigarette ban would likely allow most white people to freely and legally continue to smoke their preferred cigarettes, while communities of color would need to either travel outside city limits or source from unlicensed cigarette providers. This could be disastrous, as it may increase police officer confrontations and increase the number of street sellers who are more likely to sell cigarettes to young people.
Additionally, in just about every way possible, nonflavored cigarettes cause much more harm in the United States than menthol cigarettes. First, more people smoke nonflavored cigarettes than menthol cigarettes — both adults and youth. Second, people who smoke menthol cigarettes tend to smoke fewer cigarettes a day. Given these considerations, nonflavored cigarettes are typically the more addictive product, so a true public health approach would prioritize controlling nonflavored cigarettes. It is also not clear that the regulation will even reduce smoking.
Case Study: Massachusetts Comprehensive Tobacco Flavor Ban
On June 1, 2020, Massachusetts implemented a tobacco flavor ban. I authored an analysis that compared cigarette sales in Massachusetts after the flavor ban to the year prior to the ban, finding millions of additional cigarette sales in and around Massachusetts when combined with its bordering states. It is true that menthol cigarette bans reduce cigarette sales locally. However, if surrounding localities have lower cigarette taxes — just like they did near Massachusetts and do near Columbus — total cigarette sales actually tend to increase as residents drive across borders and buy cigarette cartons in bulk.
In conclusion, flavor bans at the local level have little effect on public health and potentially disastrous consequences for communities of color. Massachusetts has already conducted multiple raids after implementing its flavor ban, mostly in communities of color. I urge the city of Columbus to collaborate with community members in determining an inclusive approach to improving health outcomes among its historically marginalized populations.
Thank you for your time and consideration.