During a recent trip to New York City, I walked past a corner shop with vibrantly colored window displays, brimming with rainbows, cookies, candies, oversized gummy bears and stuffed animals.
A high-end candy store or bakery?
No, it was Times Square’s Weed World, which sells CBD infused candies and other edibles and cannabis-themed merchandise.
The store appeared to be doing a hopping business. Online reviewers complain that the products lack the punch they were looking for, suggesting it is more tourist trap than a true drug dispensary. But the store certainly attests to the changing sensibilities surrounding drug, and particularly marijuana, use: No longer taboo, Weed World marketed itself as a happy and silly stop, appropriate for anyone at any age.
I thought about Weed World when I read about the latest efforts to ban flavored tobacco products, both in vaping, menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars and dipping tobacco products. These restrictions are justified as necessary to make these products less appealing to teens.
As the mother of a teenager, I understand the instinct to use any mechanism available to discourage teen smoking. But before succumbing to the “do something” impulse, I know that one actually needs to consider if that “something” would actually help. Unfortunately, a century of government attempts to discourage or prohibit the use of unhealthy products— whether that’s alcohol or food high in sugar, salt, or trans-fats—shows that these interventions rarely work as they are supposed to, and often create as many problems as they solve.
Certainly that has been the argument behind the push to legalize marijuana, which makes it particularly bizarre that the same policymakers who have celebrated not just the decriminalization but the increased normalization and even glamourization of marijuana use are calling for a new war on tobacco and vaping relating products. Consider New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The Governor cheerleads the effort to legalize marijuana in the state, but then is pushing a plan to ban flavors and further regulate the sale of vape products.
The case for legalization of unhealthy substances has always rested on the idea that teens, and people generally, like to experiment, even if they know that there are risks. Making them illegal just creates a black market, rewarding criminal activity and making these products even less safe. Why is this logic less true for flavored tobacco products than for cannabis?
Efforts to regulate and even outlaw tobacco and vaping products to discourage teen use ignores other policy realities. For starters, it’s already illegal for anyone under age 21 to use any of these tobacco products. If teenagers are obtaining them, they are already breaking the rules. Enforcing existing laws specifically meant to prohibit underage use would be a better focus for policymakers than creating new rules that will similarly go unenforced.
The proposed new regulations also ignore that these flavored products are used by many adults, and often these adults rely on these flavors in order to transition from more harmful behaviors (like traditional combustible cigarette use) to those that have lower risks. Banning these products and encouraging former smokers to resume their old habit would be a terrible public health outcome.
In fact, if public health is the foremost priority, then our public health system needs to do a much better job in informing the public, including teens, about relative risks. Currently, with the war of vaping and glamorization of marijuana, many teens might be under the impression that vaping is the most dangerous choice they could make, while smoking pot is comparatively harmless.
Yet the facts suggest otherwise. In traditional smoking, it’s the combustion — the burning of tobacco — that causes cancer, not the nicotine. E-cigarettes contain no tobacco and unlike smoking marijuana, vaping does not involve combustion. Instead e-cigarettes use water vapor to deliver nicotine.That’s why studies have found that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking. Last year’s lung condition outbreak which fueled alarm about vaping was found to be linked to illegal, black-market cannabis products that teenagers were vaping, not to legal vaping products.
E-cigarettes also don’t produce smoke so there’s no risk to non-smokers from second hand smoke. Similarly, smokeless tobacco products, which often contain flavorings, are recognized by the Food and Drug Administration to be reduced-risk tobacco products. That’s good for those addicted to nicotine.
Studies on the health impact of marijuana is fiercely debated, and likely depends on the delivery mechanism, with combustion being worse for health than edibles. At a minimum however, the public ought to be concerned about the increasingly prevalent image, advanced by stores like Weed Word, that mind-altering drug laced products are harmless and appropriate for any cool kids’ birthday party.
Parents and society will never be able to prevent all teen experimentation. But we can offer clear public health messages that layout the relative health risks and have a rational, rather than contradictory, approach to substance and marketing regulation.