Columbus, Ohio, lawmakers are considering a flavor ban on tobacco products. While this proposed ban is aimed at preventing youth tobacco use, it may harm adult smokers who struggle to quit tobacco.
Smoking remains the number one cause of preventable death in the United States, contributing to nearly half a million deaths each year. In Ohio, the smoking rate among adults is 21 percent—far higher than the national rate of around 13 percent—resulting in over 20,000 smoking-related deaths each year and an estimated annual cost of nearly $6 billion in smoking-related health care expenses. This is despite the state spending more than $14 million in 2022 alone on tobacco prevention.
Clearly, Columbus lawmakers understand that smoking is a public health crisis and are trying to save lives. However, they are doing so by targeting an important harm reduction tool.
While no tobacco products are completely safe, products such as e-cigarettes or vapes, snus and other smokeless tobacco such as chews significantly reduce the harm from products that burn tobacco leaves. Research has repeatedly shown that flavors play a key role in motivating adult smokers to reduce or in some cases even quit smoking. For example, in the United Kingdom, vaping was found to have helped more than 50,000 smokers switch from smoking to a vaping product.
While youth use is a grave concern, it’s worth noting that there has been a significant reduction in teen vaping from 2019 to 2021. This is in large part a result of the efforts of community-based and advocacy organizations; the Food and Drug Administration; and local and federal regulations that raised the minimum age to purchase all tobacco products to 21. It is important to celebrate the fact that youth smoking has reached historic lows. Moreover, while trying to end all tobacco use is well-intentioned, prohibition is an ineffective tactic. In some cases, it has led to the creation of black markets that increase the use of unregulated and dangerous products by youth and adults.
A possible answer to reducing the adult use of combustible tobacco products lies in lowering tobacco-related risk by improving access to regulated, flavored alternative nicotine delivery system products. The proposed flavor ban could leave behind the more than 2 million Ohioans who smoke cigarettes by reducing the number of safer alternatives available.