The campaign for Proposition 31, a ballot initiative that Californians passed by a large majority last week, urged voters to “protect children from candy-flavored tobacco.” That slogan packed an impressive amount of dishonesty into five words.
The main target of the initiative were nicotine vaporization products that did not contain tobacco and were already reserved by law for adults. Proposition 31 decrees that adults cannot purchase such products in flavors other than tobacco, undermining the most promising harm-reducing alternative to cigarettes.
Proposition 31 was a referendum on SB 793, a 2020 law restricting “characteristic flavors” in “tobacco products.” California counterintuitively defines “tobacco product” as “an electronic device that delivers nicotine,” whether or not the nicotine is tobacco derived.
Under SB 793, “the taste or aroma of tobacco” is the only “distinctive flavor” that can legally be added to vapor products. This rule, which aims to discourage underage use by making such products less attractive to teenagers, will also deter smokers from switching to a far less dangerous source of nicotine.
“Big Tobacco targeted our children, tried to tie our children to tobacco products and literally killed a generation,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom claimed after signing SB 793. The bill’s author, Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), stated that the industry “wants to continue killing people with their candy-, fruit-, mint-, and menthol-flavored poison.”
Contrary to these warnings, there is no evidence that nicotine vaping products will “kill” anyone. In fact, they are much less dangerous than cigarettes, which expose smokers to myriad toxic and carcinogenic products of combustion.
According to a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Laboratory testing of e-cigarette ingredients, in vitro toxicology tests, and short-term human studies suggest that e-cigarettes are likely to be far less harmful than e-cigarettes combustible tobacco cigarettes.” The UK’s Royal College of Physicians also says: “Vaping is not entirely risk-free, but it is far less harmful than smoking tobacco.”
The Food and Drug Administration recognizes vaping’s potential to reduce smoking-related deaths. “E-cigarettes as a general class have significantly less risk than a combustible cigarette product,” said Brian King, director of the FDA’s Tobacco Products Center.
The FDA nonetheless appears determined to ban non-tobacco flavored nicotine vapes, the same policy adopted by California. Proponents of the policy note that teens overwhelmingly prefer the targeted flavors. But also adults.
According to survey data, three quarters of adult vapers prefer the flavors that California has banned. A 2020 study of 383 adult vapers found that “preferences for tobacco and menthol or mint decreased over time,” while “preferences for fruit remained stable” and preferences for “chocolate/sweets or other sweets.” increased.
A 2022 study asked 851 vapers how they would react if the government banned the flavors they prefer. While 29% said they would switch to flavors that are still allowed, 28% said they would “find a way” to get banned flavors, suggesting that California-style bans could push consumers toward potentially dangerous black-market options; 17% said they would “quit vaping and smoking instead” which would put them at potentially fatal risk; and 13% said they weren’t sure what to do.
A 2021 study provides further evidence that the policies just approved by California voters are likely to undermine public health. It found that “the ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products in San Francisco was associated with a higher likelihood of self-reported younger high school students having smoked recently, compared to trends in other school districts.”
Last year, in the American Journal of Public Health, 15 prominent tobacco researchers warned that vaping taste restrictions could have a perverse effect. “While flavor bans could reduce youth interest in e-cigarettes,” they wrote, “they could also reduce adult smokers’ use of vaping to quit smoking.”
Proponents of California’s prohibition were so intent on portraying themselves as righteous protectors of children that they didn’t even acknowledge the danger. The consequences can prove fatal.
Jacob Sullum is Senior Editor of Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @JacobSullum.