Smoking Bans

Some California Cities Are Making It Harder to Quit Smoking

Bans of flavored tobacco products end up leaving smokers with few options for kicking the habit, and do little to improve public health.


Christian Ohde / CHROMORANGE/picture-alliance/Newscom

In a rush to crack down on tobacco use, more than a dozen local governments across California have recently passed laws that will—if they work—nudge more people to use cigarettes instead of potentially less unhealthy alternatives.

Led by San Francisco and Oakland, cities including Sonoma, Berkeley, and Manhattan Beach have passed ordinances banning the sale of flavored tobacco products. Similar bans have been passed but not yet implemented in Beverley Hills, Palo Alto, San Mateo, and elsewhere. The prohibitions are aimed at limiting the availability of menthol cigarettes and to stop tobacco products from supposedly being marketed to children, but they are also sweeping up flavored vaping options and other forms of non-combustible tobacco products that are alternatives to cigarettes and have been shown to help smokers quit.

The unintended but completely predictable outcome? Former smokers who have already switched to e-cigarettes (or non-combustible tobacco products like snus) might find themselves forced to pick up the cancer sticks again in order to get their dose of nicotine—thanks to the always well-intentioned intervention of government officials.

These California cities are moving in exactly the wrong direction, as a growing body of scientific and medical evidence demonstrates that vaping helps smokers quit. In January, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued an advisory opinion to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showing that e-cigarettes could be life-savers. "E-cigarette aerosol contains fewer numbers and lower levels of most toxicants than smoke from combustible tobacco cigarettes does," wrote University of Washington toxicologist David Eaton, who authored the report. "Laboratory tests of e-cigarette ingredients, in vitro toxicological tests, and short-term human studies suggest that e-cigarettes are likely to be far less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes."

Even long-time smoking critics like Michael Siegel, who spent two years on the Center for Disease Control's Office on Smoking and Health, have come around to the potential for non-combustible tobacco alternatives. Vaping is an especially powerful anti-smoking tool because it so closely simulates the act of smoking without as serious of health concerns. "Not only do they provide nicotine, but they simulate cigarette smoking," Siegel, now a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, said earlier this year. "Thus, unlike nicotine patches or nicotine gum or other drugs, they address all of the behavioral, physical, and even social aspects of the smoking addiction."

Even without the unintended public health consequences, it's worth questioning if these localized bans are likely to succeed in reducing tobacco use. Nicotine addicts are going to get their hit from somewhere, and banning these products is only likely to drive business towards the already-thriving black market for tobacco products in California. Legitimate businesses will be forced to close, but public health won't improve.

There's also scant evidence that current smoking trends require a major civic intervention. Cigarette smoking by teenagers has continued to fall despite a surge in experimentation with vaping, and last year it reached the lowest level ever recorded by the Monitoring the Future Study, which began surveying high school students in 1975. If banning flavored tobacco products is meant to make smoking less attractive to youngsters, well, it seems like teens are already well ahead of officials in San Francisco and elsewhere.

In some places, smokers are fighting back against the bans.

"We just legalized marijuana. Now you want to ban menthol cigarettes?" Shawn Richard, who participated in a protest at San Francisco's city hall earlier this month, told a local TV station. "I mean come on. For real? That doesn't make any sense."

A voter petition delayed the implementation of the flavored tobacco ban in San Francisco. Voters will go to the polls in June to decide whether to allow it to proceed.

Other localities that have passed similar bans would be wise to reconsider the incentives being created. The main beneficiary of San Francisco's ban, says Joel Nitzkin, a public health physician and senior fellow with the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D.C., are the "big tobacco cigarette companies that anti-tobacco advocates love to hate."

"The losers will be the teens who could have been diverted from cigarettes," says Nitzkin, "and smokers who otherwise would have quit using flavored vaping products."

NEXT: The Hidden Legacy of Columbine: Ignorance About School Violence

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  1. Someone needs to really stop people from calling vaping a tobacco product. That is not necessarily true, nor is it often literally true.

    1. I was wondering about that myself. Do the laws in question say “tobacco products”, which would exclude vape liquid, or is Britches just lumping them all together?

      1. No, the government keeps lumping vaping in as tobacco products. The FDA started regulating it by saying it’s a tobacco product. It’s a bullshit equivalence to allow more government overreach.

        1. Tomatoes, I believe, yes?

          1. Well, they are both nightshades.

            1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

              This is what I do…

  2. I know this is OT, Eric, but here’s another crime story for you Reason writers. You can’t let this story pass without at least some notice. The stupid HBO movie, Paterno, starring Al Pacino, just came out. Newsweek just chickened out on the biggest crime story of the millennium. This story was by John Ziegler and Ralph Cipriano, both serious journalists. The whole story is hiding in plain site at Ziegler’s site:

    I know, it looks like a conspiracy site, but look at some of the links, podcasts, videos. Reason likes to talk about new types of media. There’s never been anything like this! This is a, I don’t know, … a multimedia reality miniseries. It’s still happening in real time. You can go on Twitter (John Ziegler @Zigmanfreud) and participate! I challenge you to find anything on cable like this. Here’s the spiked Newsweek piece:…..ast-moment

    Hey, Reason commenters. Don’t let this story pass your favorite magazine by. Here’s your chance to make a big splash again. All memories of the last time you’ve done anything like this have long gone down the wood chipper.

    1. There’s even a nice Reason hook. When Tim Cavenaugh first wrote about this for Reason, he said:

      Criminal accusations generally, sex accusations broadly and child-related accusations specifically are prone to witchmob kangaroo hunts, and Sandusky has not been convicted of any crime.…..ting-moral

    2. This is becoming more annoying than George R.R. Martin’s updates about Winds of Winter.

      1. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to go back to chip’n your wood in peace, soon enough. Did you check out the story? Isn’t it annoying that Reason is missing this huge story?

        1. I’ll tell you what is more annoying. It’s schmucks like you coming in with some link, the crime story of the millennium, and yet you can’t even be bothered to write up a one or two line summary. That smells like spam more than news, and the millennium hyperbole reinforces it.

          You want to be taken seriously? Take your subject seriously. If you don’t, I sure won’t.

          1. The summary is that this Penn St. case is like a long delayed one of those day care panic stories of the 1990s that were all fake. Impossible alleg’ns of child abuse, accus’ns via “recovered memory”. Ask Donna Rabinowitz who did the sleuthing on some.

    3. How many fucking times are you going to post this stupid shit? No one is reading it asshole.

      No one reads Quixote’s rant either – any sympathy we had for that guy died out the 50th time he spammed his shit.

      1. I read it. It’s worth at least a skim.

  3. The prohibitions are aimed at limiting the availability of menthol cigarettes and to stop tobacco products from supposedly being marketed to children

    It ain’t about children, it’s about black people, and your typical resident of San Francisco has a rather low opinion of them.

    1. Not all black people. Just those that smoke menthols.

      1. So, all black people?

    2. Curses for making me click on a link to those mendacious twats.

      1. Their mendacious twattery is second to one, I’ll admit that.

  4. Just slap a “marijuana” label on the menthols. The cops won’t realize that you’re buying something illegal…

  5. limiting the availability of menthol cigarettes

    Well, we know this RACIST prohibition will never stand.

    1. Black people aren’t like white people. They’re not aware they’re being manipulated by marketing. Like the wild orchid, they need protectin’ and cultivatin’.

  6. Was listening to a debate on the subject on NPR and the argument against vaping was basically this: Only FDA approved smoking cessation products work. Vaping is not approved, nor is it regulated. Therefore it is bad.

    Shorter version: Government is God.

  7. Stupid. Evil even that this is happening. Studies have proven that vaping has around 1% of carcinogenic potential compared to tobacco smoke. This scaremongering will discourage smokers from switching.

    Personally I know 6 smokers, almost all the smokers I know, who have switched to e cigs. These are people who failed to quit many times but found that the e cigs were easy to switch to.

  8. California has become the butt of libertarians’ jokes.

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