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Flavored tobacco ban is bad policy for a bad choice

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Sales revenue from flavored tobacco and vape products exceeds 50 million dollars in San Francisco every year. (Courtesy photo)

In June, voters will choose whether to uphold the Board of Supervisors’ ban on flavored tobacco, including flavored cigars, smokeless tobacco and vaping, on Proposition E. I’m proud to work with the campaign to oppose the ban and support choice.

There are three reasons the ban is a bad idea for the people of San Francisco: It will increase police abuse, rob small business owners of much-needed sales and deprive The City of tax revenue.

Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes when New York police accosted him, put him in an illegal chokehold and ended his life. He was selling loose cigarettes because Staten Island’s cigarette taxes are so high they’ve created a black market for cigarettes smuggled in from nearby counties. Sure, some people will simply quit using banned products. Others, however, will buy them either from nearby counties or from criminals who smuggle them in.

Criminalizing nonviolent behavior is associated with increases in police violence. Supervisor Malia Cohen’s ban will create a black market for flavored tobacco products, just like the cigarette taxes did in Staten Island. This will further strain relations between civilians and San Francisco police. And the burden of enforcement, as was the case with Garner, nearly always comes down disproportionately on black and brown bodies. Cops have enough to do in this city without having to be morality police enforcing nanny state regulations.

San Francisco’s hard-working small business owners have come out in force against the ban. Banning flavored tobacco will deprive corner store owners of an important draw into their stores, making it harder to compete against big box retailers. Pushing that business into the hands of criminals deprives them of their livelihood without compensation.

At the same time, the ban deprives San Francisco of much-needed tax revenue. Sales revenue from flavored tobacco and vape products exceeds 50 million dollars in San Francisco every year.

Cohen defends the ban with discredited claims. Yes, cigarettes are terrible for one’s health. But the evidence to suggest that vaping leads to smoking is shaky at best. The evidence to indicate vaping both substitutes for smoking and helps people quit smoking is much more robust.

Because the flavored tobacco ban encompasses vape products, it will likely have a counterintuitive, net negative impact on public health. England’s Royal College of Physicians has urged doctors to promote the use of e-cigarettes and other non-tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible as a substitute for smoking. And that’s because vaping is empirically shown to help people quit smoking cigarettes.

Smoking cigarettes is a terrible idea, but this ban won’t help people quit. Some will quit, sure. But others who would have vaped will instead smoke cigarettes, creating the opposite of the intended effect. Those who do choose to vape will have to either divert funds away from San Francisco’s coffers and our small businesses and toward other jurisdictions and black markets. This will increase tension between police and civilians and depriving store owners and San Francisco of much-needed revenue. And it won’t even benefit public health.

When it comes to public health, cigarettes are the real villains, and we should be doing everything in our power to help people stop smoking them. That includes keeping safer replacements legal.

Bans always have unintended consequences, and Cohen’s ban on flavored tobacco is no exception. Sometimes those tradeoffs are worth it. But in this case, the benefits of banning flavored tobacco are illusory and are in no way worth the cost.

Cathy Reisenwitz is a San Francisco-based writer and commentator.

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