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Editorial: No more excuses. Ban flavored tobacco products

California lawmakers are poised to vote on a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Few bills that pass through Sacramento have as much potential to save lives as SB 793, which would ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and vaping liquid, from being sold in stores in California.

Why? Because fruity flavors in e-cigarettes and cigarillos and menthol flavors in traditional cigarettes lure teenagers, putting them at risk for a lifetime addicted to a deadly and costly product. It’s no surprise why that happens: Unflavored tobacco is unappetizing to the uninitiated, and studies show that the vast majority of kids who try tobacco products use a flavored one first.

The bill is up for a key committee hearing Tuesday in the California Assembly. Public health groups and other advocates of the ban are concerned that, once again, there isn’t sufficient support among committee members for the ban to pass. A similar proposal from the same author, Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), stalled last year after being gutted with hostile amendments.

But that was long before a deadly infection that attacks the respiratory system emerged and spread across the globe. Infectious-disease experts say it is likely that the novel coronavirus will become endemic like influenza, meaning it will be a persistent threat to humans, especially those in poor health, and managed only by regular immunizations, medicine and improved health. Surely there’s no better time than 2020 to protect another generation from getting hooked on tobacco products that destroy their lungs and make them susceptible to COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

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The bill’s opponents are primarily makers and sellers of tobacco and nicotine products. They can’t challenge the health implications of tobacco use, so they argue that depriving retailers of sales to adults during an economic downturn will lead to financial calamity for small businesses. It will certainly affect some retailers, such as convenience stores and grocers, although it’s hard to imagine that many are dependent on flavored tobacco products for their survival.

The human and personal cost of smoking tobacco, meanwhile, far outweighs any potential drop in revenue for tobacco retailers. A pack-a-day cigarette habit costs as much as $3,000 per year in California, not to mention good health and possibly years of life. (Vaping is so new we don’t yet know its long-term health implications.) And while a ban would reduce tobacco sales tax revenue to the state by as much as $110 million in the first year alone, it could save an estimated $13 billion in annual healthcare costs.

Furthermore, retail age limits have not stopped teens from smoking or vaping, the latter of which has been rising sharply in recent years and can lead to a smoking habit. What does work is getting flavored products off the shelves altogether. When the FDA banned flavors other than menthol in traditional cigarettes in 2009, youth smoking rates dropped. The state should take the next logical step and prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products.


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