This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new “proposed product standards” that would eliminate menthol cigarettes and ban characterizing flavors (other than tobacco) in cigars. The FDA claims that such a move would “prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit.”
While addressing youth use of combustible cigarettes and helping people who smoke quit is laudable, the agency ought to focus its priority on products that have both helped adults quit smoking and essentially eliminated youth cigarette use: electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes and/or vapor products.
Despite the alarmism surrounding them, e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than combustible cigarettes. In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) found that the use of e-cigarettes is “unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking.” The RCP is the same public health body the United States relied on in the 1960s for its own report on the harms of smoking.
Yet, American public health refuses to acknowledge the role of e-cigarettes in reducing smoking rates among youth and young adults. For example, in 2019, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 6% of high school students reported smoking a combustible cigarette on at least one occasion in the 30 days prior to the survey. In 2009, when FDA was given authority over tobacco products, 19.5% reported past-30-day cigarette use. This is a whopping 69.2% reduction. Moreover, the CDC found in 2020 that “[c]urrent cigarette smoking was lowest among people aged 18-25 years.”
This begs to question why the FDA even feels the need to issue more bans when youth and young adult smoking continues to decline.
Moreover, the proposed ban will undoubtedly burden states with enforcement costs as black markets thrive under a new prohibition. This has already been seen at a state level. For example, Massachusetts implemented a menthol cigarette flavor ban in June, 2020. Between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, state cigarette excise taxes in Massachusetts decreased by 23.7%, from $486 million in FY2020 to $370.6 million in FY2021. At the same time, the Commonwealth had to allocate additional state funding to its Illegal Tobacco Task Force to enforce the ban. In fact, between FY 2020 and 2021 budgets, state funding increased by 73%, up from $589,911 allocated to the task force in 2020 to over $1 million in 2021 and 2022.
The FDA is already saddled with regulating novel tobacco products—including e-cigarettes—with thousands of products under regulatory uncertainty. In spite of the data showing that such products are safer—not to mention coincide with a significant reduction of smoking rates among youth and young adults—the agency delays on authorizing such products and is in fact, adding more to its regulatory scheme.
Rather than issuing new bans, the agency ought to shift its efforts to promoting tobacco harm reduction.