SAN FRANCISCO (June 5, 2018) – In Tuesday’s primary election, San Francisco voters kept in place a law passed by the board of supervisors last year that banned the sale of flavored-tobacco products throughout the city. By a 68 percent to 32 percent margin, voters approved Proposition E, a referendum that would have overturned the tobacco law. With referenda, a “yes” vote keeps the challenged law in place, whereas a “no” vote would have overturned it.

Although the law’s stated goal is to improve health, it will have an overall negative effect in that regard. This is because it outlaws the sale of e-cigarettes and other vaping products while ensuring access to combustible cigarettes, according to the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for harm-reduction policies and other pragmatic free-market approaches to public policy.

Harm reduction encompasses the idea that instead of promoting abstinence from certain dangerous behaviors, officials should promote strategies that reduce the ill effects of such behaviors. It’s a common and successful approach in dealing with drug addiction and risky sexual behaviors. Indeed, San Francisco has long been on the cutting edge in this area, with its embrace of safe-injection centers for drug addicts and its progressive policies addressing the AIDS epidemic.

“While e-cigarettes are not totally safe or healthful, they are far less harmful than cigarettes,” said Carrie Wade, R Street’s director of Harm Reduction Policy. “Public Health England estimates that electronic cigarettes are 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes, and the latest evidence disputes the allegation that vaping is a gateway to smoking. It’s too bad San Francisco officials – now backed by voters – failed to grasp these distinctions.”

Although the effort to overturn the city’s law has failed, R Street urges the board of supervisors to consider amendments to the law that would allow San Francisco residents who already are vaping to have access to these products without having to leave the city limits.

“The new law bans flavored cigarettes, but equally-dangerous, non-flavored tobacco products can still legally be sold in the city,” said Steven Greenhut, R Street’s Sacramento-based Western region director. “If vaping products aren’t readily available, an addicted smoker will be more likely to grab a pack of traditional cigarettes than a far less-harmful e-cigarette.”

Featured Publications