A Camel’s Nose Under the Tent for Cigarettes
COMMENTARY

April 2, 2024by Lindsay Mark Lewis, Executive Director, Progressive Policy Institute
A Camel’s Nose Under the Tent for Cigarettes
FILE - Parade participants carry the rainbow flag on June 30, 2013. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Bad policies rely on bad arguments. Rarely has that aphorism been put on clearer display than in Vermont, a state where advocates for banning flavored nicotine products claim their aim is to protect members of the LGBTQIA community disproportionally drawn to menthol nicotine products. 

But just ask yourself: Does that make sense? How often in history have those claiming to care for a community frequently subject to discrimination and prejudice demonstrated that concern by banning products that community is more inclined to purchase?

Perhaps there’s something else going on.

Here’s the real story. Today, many flavored nicotine products — including pouches and vapes — have shown to be significantly healthier alternatives to smoking. And so their introduction to a market of consumers is meant primarily to be a less carcinogenic alternative to cigarettes.

And that’s the key: Nicotine, while addictive, is not responsible for lung cancer, emphysema and other diseases brought on by smoking. It’s the inhalation of toxic smoke and its byproducts — namely tar and other chemicals — that pose the most serious dangers to human health. 

For that reason, the FDA has determined that tobacco products exist on a continuum of risk, with cigarettes being by far the most dangerous, and alternatives far less detrimental.

In turn, sensible tobacco policy is most effective if it narrowly targets the scourge of smoking without simultaneously undermining the potential of flavored nicotine products to help individuals extinguish their exposure to smoke. Hence the popularity of many products flavored with menthol. Better, from a public health perspective, for people to be consuming menthol-flavored vapes than tar-filled cigarettes.

The trade-off is real.

study last year from the Yale School of Public Health found that flavor bans typically lead to increases in cigarette sales. Why? Because absent finding a vape, pouch or e-cigarette that’s more appealing, consumers are more likely to smoke.

And that, then, is what’s likely to happen disproportionately to the LGBTQIA people who are purportedly more inclined to menthol-flavored nicotine products: They will be disproportionately spurred to take up the health-destroying habit of lighting up.

It’s not that policymakers shouldn’t be looking for ways to limit the draw of what we know are addiction-inducing substances. But blanket flavor bans on nicotine, however well-intentioned, are akin to performing surgery with a chainsaw.

They do more harm than good.

And, ultimately, they hurt the very populations they are supposedly designed to aid. Framed as an attempt to “help” members of the LGBTQIA community, this proposed reform in Vermont is instead likely to result in more people taking greater risks with their health and well-being.

Beyond claiming that their aim is to protect the LGBTQIA community from themselves, supporters of the nicotine flavor ban claim that the flavors entice kids. If that’s the case, why does the state have such different policies for other products intended exclusively for adult use?

Throughout the state, adults can currently walk into any number of dispensaries and buy marijuana-laced gummies, hard candies and soda pop. They can purchase strawberry- and pineapple-flavored alcoholic seltzers. They can pick up a few cans of lemonade-flavored liquor. This is because many adults enjoy flavors, and purchase is limited to consumers 21 years or older.

Which begs the question: If this is a sensible approach for alcohol and marijuana, why is it not sufficient for nicotine?

It’s a question we should take seriously, not just because of the health implications for the members of the LGBTQIA community. It’s important because it will influence our approach to other questions of public health.

After years of struggles, progressives largely prevailed in convincing legislators to enact policies designed to push people away from the disastrous consequences of smoking.

Here, some reformers are insisting we change our approach. Bans on flavored nicotine are the camel’s nose under the tent.

Instead of patronizing members of a persecuted minority group under the guise of protecting them, progressives should unite to ensure that every adult has access to the tools, products and off-ramps they need to quit smoking for good.


Lindsay Mark Lewis is the executive director for the Progressive Policy Institute, which can be reached on LinkedIn.

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