California Ramps Up the War on Vaping With Flavor Ban

August 27, 2020

They never stop. Tobacco control organizations in California convinced the California Assembly to pass SB 793 on August 24, after the Senate had already done so. The bill bans the sale of flavored vaping products in brick-and-mortar businesses. It also outlaws sales of flavored smokeless tobacco, small cigars and menthol cigarettes. Flavored hookah products, pipe tobacco and premium cigars are exempt.

The mainstream media predictably played their part, with headlines like, “California must ignore Big Tobacco’s attacks and protect kids from flavored nicotine.” The Sacramento Bee editorial board took drug panic to a whole new level: “The bill would stamp out the tobacco industry’s efforts to addict young people with candy-flavored tobacco by banning the products, setting an example for the rest of the nation … they have created a full-blown epidemic of childhood nicotine addiction driven by slick technology, youth-oriented marketing and candy flavors like cheesecake, cherry, mint and ‘unicorn vomit.’”

Flavor bans are promoted based on a massive fiction: that flavors are designed to attract children to tobacco and vaping products. “Using candy, fruit and other alluring flavors, the tobacco industry weaponized its tactics to beguile a new generation into nicotine addiction while keeping longtime users hooked,” said State Senator Jerry Hill, the sponsor of the bill “SB 793 breaks Big Tobacco’s death grip.”

Everything in Hill’s hyperbolic comment is false. Everyone likes flavorsfrom coconut-infused vodka, to chocolate ice cream, to lemon throat lozenges, to white ice mint nicotine gum. There is no such thing as “kid-friendly” flavors, it’s a fake idea relentlessly front-loaded by organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Many adult smokers find vape flavors vital in helping them switch to a vastly safer option. And the vaping industry isn’t controlled by tobacco companies, but is overwhelmingly made up of networks of small vape shops whose owners are often former smokers.

The Centers for Disease Control and tobacco control zealots declared a youth vaping epidemic several years ago. Paired with the flavor panic, it has proved a potent anti-vaping strategy.

The main targets are adult smokers and former smokers, disproportionately from less privileged backgrounds.

But there is no youth vaping epidemic. In 2019, the National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 20.8 percent of teens vaped in the last 30 days. But only 5.7 percent vaped more than 20 days per month, and one third of them didn’t vape nicotine. The survey also found the number one reason for vaping was “use of friend or family member” (39 percent), second was flavors (31 percent) and the third was the correct belief that, “they are less harmful” than smoking  (17 percent). Young people, who are smoking less and less, are smart to choose vaping instead.

Bans are a form of collective punishment. The main targets are adult smokers and former smokers, disproportionately from less privileged backgrounds—they are by far the largest group that uses flavored vapes.

California Governor Gavin Newsom has made clear he will sign the bill into law. So the nation’s largest state will join four others that have banned flavors. California is clamping down on all ways to purchase vaping products. A law passed last year placed restrictions on online and mail-order sales of all vaping products and includes an adult signature-on-delivery requirement. As a result adults will find access difficult, maybe impossible, and some will return to smoking. Flavor bans have life-and-death consequences for adults who vape. But legislators never seem to hear their voices when they pass bans.

Whenever sales of a substance are banned, an illicit market is created—and according to the iron law of prohibition, it will be less safe than the regulated version. The illicit market in flavored vapes is already thriving in states that have flavor bans. In Massachusetts, where menthol cigarettes are banned, people smuggle them into the state from New Hampshire; in Boston recently, I was offered a pack for $10.

Enforcement of drug laws is never race-neutral.

And wherever you create new bans, they will be enforced by police, whose actions often lead to violent, racist and disastrous outcomes. “If banning psychoactive substances without giving people viable alternatives worked, prohibition and the War on Drugs would be success stories rather than global lessons on abject policy failures,” David Sweanor, a lawyer, University of Ottawa adjunct professor and tobacco policy analyst, told Filter.

In a press conference last year, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that more than $30 million in grant funds would be allocated to local law enforcement agencies around the state to combat illegal tobacco use and sales, including vaping, among minors. Money will also be given to “school resource officers,” who are actually police. The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office received $552,955 toward tobacco enforcement operations and for providing classes and diversion for parents, minors and retailers.

Politicians and tobacco control organizations are playing a cynical and dangerous game with people who vape, and especially for people of color. Enforcement of drug laws is never race-neutral. While the Black Lives Matter movement calls for defunding the police, the anti-vaping zealots demand measures that swell their reach and their coffers.


Photo by Lindsay Fox via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

Helen Redmond

Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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