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The Role of Politics in E-Cigarette Legislation: Separating Fact from Fear

From 2017 to 2018, the use of electronic cigarettes among high school youth nearly doubled. In response to this uptick in teen vaping, Massachusetts lawmakers have introduced legislation (S1279) to ban the sale of e-cigarettes in the Commonwealth (with the exception of tobacco-flavored products) except in adult-only smoking bars. This bill would also ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. At first blush, it may appear this is strong public health legislation, guided by the principle that we want to limit youth access to an addictive product. But upon closer inspection, it’s clear this bill is about politics, not public health.

Supporters of this proposed bill purport to deem any tobacco product that is addicting large numbers of youth to be off-limits when it comes to sale in convenience stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and other retail outlets. There is one gaping exemption in the legislation, however, that undermines its entire purpose.

Legislators have carved out a huge exception for Marlboro cigarettes – the #1 brand of cigarettes used by youth smokers in Massachusetts. While most Newports, Kools, and Salems could not be sold in the state because nearly all of their sub-brands are menthol-flavored, virtually every sub-brand of Marlboro would be able to remain on store shelves that are easily accessible by minors.

If this legislation goes into effect, it will actually be easier for both youth and adults to get access to a traditional Marlboro cigarette than to a strawberry vape. Youth will quickly figure out that it is much easier for them to smoke than to track down a healthier alternative in an e-cigarette.

The last thing in the world that we should be doing is to give tobacco cigarettes a competitive advantage over fake (electronic) cigarettes, which contain nicotine but do not involve combustion and the release of toxins that are the driver of smoking-related illnesses. There is no justification for targeting e-cigarettes, a less harmful product, while leaving combustible cigarettes on the shelves.

What’s more, by choosing to ban menthol cigarettes, while leaving all other cigarettes untouched, Massachusetts lawmakers are arbitrarily picking one tobacco company over another. There is no public health rationale for singling out certain cigarette brands for a sales ban but not others – these brands are equally deadly.

In fact, the majority of youth smokers prefer non-menthol cigarettes; and the most popular brand among youth smokers is Marlboro, with Newport being a distant third. And the data on cigarette brand preferences among youth do not provide a justification for banning menthol cigarettes and giving non-menthol cigarettes a huge competitive market advantage. If lawmakers are sincere about wanting to protect kids from nicotine addiction, banning Newport sales but allowing Marlboro sales makes no sense.

Why, then, are policy makers targeting e-cigarettes, but not real ones? Why are they ignoring the fact that in 2017, there were 19,000 Massachusetts high schoolers who were current cigarette smokers and an additional 38,000 who had experimented with tobacco cigarettes? Why are they doing nothing to address the 10.3% of high school seniors who are cigarette smokers, according to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey?

Politics. Our elected officials appear not to have the political courage to take on the cigarette industry, with its powerful lobbying, but find it easy to go after a product being sold overwhelmingly by small businesses with little, if any, political influence. They appear to care about our kids only enough to take the politically expedient step of banning e-cigarettes, but not enough to take the principled step of removing from the youth market a product that we know has the potential to kill half of those kids who become addicted to it.


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