Despite record declines in youth and adult tobacco use, lawmakers in Westchester County, New York, passed a ban on the sales of flavor tobacco on November 29. Citing the ban as an effective measure to reduce youth use of flavored tobacco products, as well as addressing the issue that minority groups are more likely to smoke flavored cigarettes, lawmakers voted 11 to 6 on the prohibitive measure, which will go into effect in six months.

Lawmakers and supporters of the ban were quick to point out that adults will not be punished for using flavored tobacco products. More interestingly, it will be the county health department, not a law enforcement agency, that will oversee the issuing of fines for retailers in violation of the new law.

Across the country, a host of lawmakers from cities to states to the federal government, have decried a youth and minority-driven menthol and flavored tobacco epidemic, yet, these rallying cries continue to ignore real-life data.

In New York, youth tobacco use is at epic lows. In 2019, only 14.7% of high school students in the state had ever tried a combustible cigarette and a minuscule 4.2% were currently smoking.

While state data is not yet available, national data indicates even greater declines in the years since then. In 2022, only 1.9% of middle and high school students reported past-month use of cigars, 1.6% reported smoking and a measly 1.2% had used smokeless tobacco. Between 2019 and 2022, among middle and high schoolers, past-month cigar use decreased by 64.2%, past-month cigarette use declined by 62.8% and past-month smokeless tobacco use decreased by 62.9%.

Smoking rates continue to decline for adults in New York. In 2021, only 12% were currently smoking—a 44.2% decrease from 1995’s rate of 21.4%.

At the hearing, and similar to other flavor ban proposal discussions, a good amount of time was spent arguing that banning flavored tobacco products would improve racial equity due to minorities smoking menthol and flavored tobacco products at higher percentages.

While laudable, this data ignores the fact that in New York, a larger percentage of White adults were currently smoking in 2021, compared to Black and Hispanic adults. In 2021, among all White adults, 12.9% were currently smoking compared to 11.3% of Black adults and 11.3% of Hispanic adults.

White adults account for the largest share of adults that were currently smoking in 2021. In that year, over 1.1 million White New York adults were currently smoking, making up 65% of the state’s smoking population, compared to 325,000 Hispanic adults (18.4%) and over 245,000 Black adults (13.8%).

Moreover, smoking rates have declined much more significantly among Black and Hispanic adults compared to White adults in New York. Between 2011 and 2021, smoking rates among White adults decreased by 27.9%, among Hispanic adults by 35.1%, and among Black adults by 46.9%.

Rather than enacting prohibitionist policies that fail to consider why youth are using tobacco and vapor products, local policymakers should urge state leaders to invest more funding towards tobacco control programs, including education, cessation, and prevention. There is more than enough money from existing tobacco monies to provide adequate funding for such programs.

In 2021, the Empire State collected $919.9 million in state cigarette excise taxes and $764.4 million in tobacco settlement payments, yet allocated only $39.8 million (2.4%) to tobacco control. In 20 years, for every $1 the state received in tobacco-related payments, all paid for by the adults who smoke, the state spent $0.02 funding tobacco control programs.

Youth tobacco product use continues to decline without prohibitive actions. Rather than banning the sale of flavored tobacco products, Westchester County lawmakers ought to implore their state to invest more tobacco monies towards programs to prevent youth use and help adults quit.

To read Lindsey’s written testimony to the Westchester County hearing, click HERE.