Vapers and smokers in San Francisco will find it harder to find their favorite e-juice flavors from next April. Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance which bans the sale of flavored e-liquids, menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars and more. Unsurprisingly, the decision was justified based on the idea that “flavored tobacco products promote youth initiation of tobacco use,” but no consideration whatsoever was given to the committed smokers who are only able to quit using flavored e-liquids. As always, the cries to “think of the children” seem to prevent lawmakers from thinking of anybody else.
The New Ban on Flavored Tobacco Products
The new ordinance is set to amend the Health Code to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. Unlike in the Federal law banning characterizing flavors in cigarettes, the new San Francisco law includes menthol cigarettes, but it goes much further by also imposing a ban on flavored e-liquids, flavored cigars, flavored smokeless tobacco and flavored “shisha” tobacco used in hookah pipes.
The ban was approved by the Board of Supervisors very shortly after it was recommended by the public safety committee, and will be voted on in the coming week by the city board. Given how quickly the ban was passed and the complete lack of consideration of possible unintended consequences, it’s almost certain to be put into law. If this does happen, the rule will be in force from April next year.
In the “background information” section of the text of the ordinance, the rationale behind the move is explained:
Flavored tobacco products promote youth initiation of tobacco use and help young occasional smokers to become daily smokers by reducing or masking the natural harshness and taste of tobacco smoke and thereby increasing the appeal of tobacco products.
It also points out that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and that every day 2,500 U.S. children try their first cigarette. The problem is certainly a serious one, but is the solution really as good as they think it is?
Will the New Law Help Reduce Youth Smoking?
As we’ve covered in detail elsewhere, there is no evidence that banning flavored e-liquid will have any impact on youth smoking rates. The reasoning depends on several steps, and all of them are poorly-supported by evidence or just don’t make much sense.
- Flavored e-liquid would have to cause youths to vape: For the ban to accomplish anything, flavored e-juice would have to be responsible for teens starting to vape. Although teens do like the flavors, it’s far from clear that it’s the only reason they vape.
- It would have to cause a lot of never-smoking youths to vape: A teen who already smokes trying vaping isn’t really a big deal – if anything, it’s a good thing if it helps them quit smoking. The concern is really about teens who don’t or have never smoked. But evidence consistently shows that only one or two out of every thousand never-smoking teens vapes regularly.
- Teens would have to get addicted to nicotine because of it: To end up smoking, youths would likely have to get addicted to nicotine. The only problem is that all the evidence we have on this suggests that most teen vapers don’t even use nicotine.
- Addicted teens would have to progress to smoking: This is the gateway effect. There are a multitude of issues with this, but the biggest is that there is no evidence at all – not even a single case report – of never-smokers starting to vape regularly and then progressing to regular smoking. And arguably more importantly, switching from vaping to smoking doesn’t make much sense. Why would you switch to a more harmful, much worse-tasting product, all for the same substance?
- They wouldn’t have started smoking otherwise: Even if they did move from vaping flavored e-juice to smoking, it’s not clear what would have happened without e-cigarettes. Would the teens have never started smoking, or were they doomed to smoke regardless of whether they tried vaping? Again, there is no evidence on this point. Without a flavored e-juice to try, instead they could well just reach straight for the cigarettes.
Every step in this is poorly-supported by evidence, if there’s any at all. The truth is that this move is entirely based on assumptions. They assume kids only vape because of flavors, they assume they’re getting addicted to nicotine, and they assume this will lead them to start smoking in the future. Never mind that the youth smoking rate has been plummeting amid the rise of vaping, and never mind that the number of never-smoking teens who start vaping regularly is absolutely tiny.
The idea that this ham-fisted legislation – based solely on debunked or unsupported anti-vaping talking points – will have any impact at all on youth smoking is laughable. In fact, by reducing the availability of vaping products, it could well have a negative impact. Despite all the concern about the 2,500 teens who start smoking every day, they apparently didn’t consider whether this legislation is crushing one of the most promising approaches to reducing that number.
How Will the New Law Impact Smokers and Vapers?
So if it probably won’t have an impact on the youth smoking rate, but what will it do for adult smokers and vapers? If anything, the answer is “harm them.”
The potential unintended consequences are obvious. By making it harder to get hold of flavored e-liquids – which users consider “very important” for quitting smoking – the new law poses a clear risk of reducing the effectiveness of vaping for those who need it. It puts up barriers, justified by “protecting the children,” but doesn’t even consider who the barrier will be an issue for.
The good news is that San Francisco’s smokers and vapers will still be able to order flavored e-liquids from the internet. As Regina Dick-Endrizzi from the San Francisco Office for Small Business explained:
The law does not prohibit individuals from online purchases or utilizing delivery apps of businesses outside San Francisco; it does prohibit the sale and delivery of those products by San Francisco businesses.
So you will still be able to buy flavored e-juice from out of state, so any committed vapers or smokers serious about quitting will still have access to the products they need. Tobacco-flavored e-liquid will still be available – which seems silly given that tobacco flavor has to be added to e-juice – but it doesn’t take long for even new vapers to want to branch out to other flavors.
The biggest issues come for the smokers who aren’t as committed or who aren’t comfortable ordering products online. What about the aging smokers who might stop into a vape store close to them out of curiosity? Instead of having a range of enjoyable e-juices to offer them, they’ll have near-bare shelves only containing tobacco flavors. For all of those smokers who only quit thanks to flavored e-juice, this just won’t be good enough.
And that’s if the vape stores even survive…
Is This the End for San Francisco Vape Stores?
E-liquid is a big money-maker for vape stores. It’s the thing you need to buy most often as a vaper, and in California – the home of so many excellent juice companies – flavored e-liquid is absolutely essential to the business. As things stand, from next April vape stores will no longer be able to do this in San Francisco, and staying in business will become increasingly difficult.
Vapers and smokers who are looking for the best e-liquids will no longer have the option of supporting local business, unless they’re happy to stick to tobacco flavors. The reality is that most will shop online for juice, and since hardware and other vaping gear is likely to be available from the same place, there will be much less motivation to go to a brick-and-mortar vape store.
For San Francisco-based e-juice companies like Velvet Cloud Vapor, the decision is absolutely devastating, and will likely mean either relocating or closing down altogether. Even if they could survive the FDA regulations, they cannot survive an outright ban on their main product in the place they conduct business.
The unavoidable truth is that this legislation is going to be absolutely devastating to the vaping industry in San Francisco, and if other places in California follow suit – which they’re certainly considering – the new rule could be the catalyst for a chain of events that kills the industry state-wide or even further afield. And all for what?
When Politicians Put Feelings Before Facts, We All Suffer…
This legislation is a perfect example of a “feel-good” policy that is very unlikely to have any real-world positive effects. In fact, it’s much more likely to discourage quitting from San Francisco residents and may even lead some vapers to go back to smoking. Politicians get a lot of positive attention for “standing up to the industry” and “protecting the children,” but precious few people actually care enough to look at the facts with an open mind. This isn’t protecting the children; this is banging the anti-vaping drum for the sake of banging it, no matter who it hurts.
…But it Can Still be Stopped
The only silver lining is that it isn’t too late to stop it. As CASAA points out:
San Francisco has done a shameful thing, but there is still time to fix it. In the months leading up to implementing the flavor ban, there is still an opportunity to pass an exemption for low-risk tobacco and nicotine products. Considering the rate at which studies about tobacco harm reduction are emerging, it is possible we will have more evidence to support an exemption. Unfortunately, while we wait for the Board of Supervisors to come to their senses, hundreds of San Francisco residents will continue to smoke past a point where switching to a low-risk alternative could have saved their lives.
They’re urging vapers to contact the Board of Supervisors to oppose this harmful, disproportionate legislation before it’s too late.