Lawmakers are considering a bill which would prohibit flavored tobacco and nicotine products. While it is no doubt well-intentioned, passing the bill into law would be a grave mistake. A flavored tobacco ban is a very poor way to confront addiction. It would put businesses and jobs at risk, lower tax revenues, and pose a danger to communities through illicit markets.
The economic costs of a ban alone would be substantial. It would hit the more than 5,000 licensed Colorado business which sell tobacco products to adults aged 21 and older. In the last decade, those businesses sold around $4.6 billion in flavored tobacco products in entirely legitimate transactions which would be criminalized under the new legislation.
What’s more, the ban would hit everyone’s wallets, not just those who trade in tobacco. A ban on flavored products would take a huge chunk out of the annual $406.3 million of tobacco excise and sales tax revenue in Colorado. By banning the sales of flavored tobacco products including menthol cigarettes to adults, approximately $1.2 billion in revenue would be at risk over the next ten years.
Either the state finds itself with considerably less money to spend overnight or, worse, politicians decide to increase other taxes on hardworking Colorado residents to make up the shortfall. In either scenario, it is likely that programs which rely on government funding such as housing, local governments, K-12 education, and even tobacco prevention programs would lose out, since they depend specifically on revenues from the cigarette tax.
Alongside the economic impact, a short-sighted move to ban flavored tobacco products would bring additional costs for Colorado communities by stoking illicit trade. Removing these products from the legal market would create a whole new market operating outside of the law, meaning cashflow moves from licensed businesses to criminal networks, which then profit from tobacco smuggling.
Based on what has happened in the past in similar cases, there is no doubt about how this would play out—prohibiting entire sections of the consumer market always leads to a boom in the black market. That would heap additional pressure onto already stressed law enforcement organizations like the State Police, County Sheriffs, and City and Town Correctional Departments, as well as courts and correctional facilities.
A ban would also put ordinary consumers of tobacco in unnecessary danger by forcing them to resort to unlicensed, unregulated, unaccountable vendors to buy their tobacco products. They will no longer be confident that the products they consume are safe and tested.
Perhaps most damningly of all, going ahead with the ban would be undemocratic. Voters are staunchly opposed to it. The data suggests they overwhelmingly view these kinds of laws as a new form of prohibition and resent them for that reason. 77 percent of all voters say being aged 21 or older means you, not the government, get to make choices for yourself, including what legal products to buy. People want to be treated as adults.
Protecting children from tobacco and nicotine addiction is a laudable aim, but a blanket ban would bring with it too much collateral damage. Instead, Colorado should focus its attention on harm reduction solutions. Cigarette sales to under-21s are already illegal. The strategy for confronting youth tobacco use should center around enforcing the law as it stands.
There is plenty more that can be done to help without fueling other issues, too. For instance, investment in education and cessation support would go much further towards safeguarding public health than a ban. Marketing restrictions and licensing rules, for instance, should be tightened to bring regulation of smokeless e-vapor products in line with those for cigarettes and traditional tobacco products.
The proposed ban, then, fails on all fronts. It would be bad for criminal justice, bad for public health, and voters do not want it. There are ample unexplored avenues to help address the underage use of tobacco without prohibiting adult choices. We are all better off exploring those long before considering ineffective and harmful blanket bans.