To its credit, the Missoula City Council has taken extra steps to assure that its proposed ban on the sale of flavored-tobacco products conforms to state law, which limits the power of localities to impose tobacco restrictions that are more stringent than state standards. The revised measure, which will come before council this month, now mainly applies to flavored vaping products.
Despite its legal fastidiousness, however, the council hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the fundamental problems with its proposal, which is designed to reduce teen use of nicotine. In reality, banning the sales of most e-cigarettes will only make it tougher for all Missoulians to access lower-risk products. If smokers can no longer easily buy vapes, they will be more likely to keep smoking cigarettes, which will still be available at their local convenience store.
Virtually all e-cigarettes use flavored liquids, which means the amended proposal would ban most vape sales — except for those vapes that taste like tobacco. Critics have focused on various legitimate problems with this approach, ranging from its impact on small retailers to the futility of forcing vape users to buy their preferred products in other jurisdictions.
My main concern is the unintended and negative public health consequences of restricting this choice. Smoking is undeniably dangerous. Nicotine is addictive, but the real problem is the delivery device — i.e., the myriad carcinogens that smokers inhale when they light up a traditional cigarette. E-cigarettes are not totally safe, of course, but e-cigarettes need to be available in Missoula to help smokers reduce the harm from their habit.
In 2016, the venerable Royal College of Physicians in Great Britain published a widely cited report demonstrating that the long-term health hazard posed by e-cigarettes is less than 5% of the harm from smoking. British public officials actively encourage the use of vaping by smokers, given its less-deleterious health effects.
Anti-smoking activists rarely address this important nuance. They argue that vaping can be harmful and direct smokers toward FDA-approved cessation aids such as nicotine patches and gum. Those federally sanctioned products can also help people quit their habit, but many smokers prefer vaping for a variety of legitimate reasons. By the way, many vapers prefer flavors. They don’t want a tobacco taste that reminds them of their old habit.
Teen vaping rates are a serious concern, but the best approach is for the city to do more to enforce current laws that attempt to keep them out of the hands of people who are under the legal age. It seems odd to address underage use of nicotine by banning adults from accessing these products. Missoula has a serious underage drinking problem — yet it would be absurd for the city to address it by banning liquor sales to people 21 or older.
The city’s more tightly written ordinance will put Missoula in a better place in the likely event it is challenged in the courts, but that misses the broader point. “Yes, this could end up in court,” Councilwoman Mirtha Becerra recently told the Missoula Current. “Yes, it was contemplated in the city budget we approved and yes, it is absolutely necessary that we do this for something we believe will protect our youth.”
But instead of gearing up for a court case, the council ought to think of more creative ways of protecting the city’s youth — ones that don’t undermine adult Missoulians ability to choose safer alternatives to their deadly cigarette habit.
Image credit: SVETOV DMITRII