Testimony in Opposition to Banning Flavored Tobacco Products in Oregon
Testimony In OPPOSITION of Oregon House Bill 3090 relating to flavored tobacco
House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee
March 29, 2023
Dear Chair Nosse and members of the committee,
My name is Steven Greenhut. I am a senior fellow and Western region director at the R Street Institute (R Street), a think tank that supports limited, effective government in many areas, including tobacco harm reduction. We believe that flavor bans that target e-cigarettes undermine public health by making it more difficult for adult smokers to switch to a safer product.
As such, I am writing to oppose House Bill 3090, which would prohibit the distribution and sale of flavored tobacco products and delivery systems in Oregon. Oregon is a pioneer state in drug decriminalization, but prohibiting classes of less-harmful nicotine products would be taking a page from the War on Drugs playbook.
While the stated goal of the proposed legislation is to protect teens from vaping, flavored tobacco bans have the unintended effect of harming adult smokers who are trying to switch to a less-dangerous product. For starters, retailers are already forbidden from selling any tobacco or nicotine product to people under the age of 21. R Street has long been an ardent supporter of laws to restrict tobacco purchases to those under 21 years of age, but it is wrongheaded to ban products for adult users as a strategy for combatting illegal, underage use.
The focus should be on enforcement, not prohibition. Vaping and smokeless tobacco products such as Swedish snus and Zyn almost always include characterizing flavors since organic and synthetic nicotine has none, which is one of the main appeals for smokers who are trying to break their dependence on tobacco. HB 3090 would serve as a virtual ban on these products, while leaving the most dangerous products—combustible cigarettes—readily available.
All tobacco products contain health risks, so R Street urges individuals who do not use tobacco or nicotine products to abstain from their use altogether. Nevertheless, we urge policymakers to adopt a harm reduction strategy that encourages safer alternatives for adult consumers who are unable or unwilling to quit smoking. We believe that such an approach provides real-world health benefits given that many people remain dependent on nicotine and will choose higher-risk products if the lower-risk ones are not readily available.
Harm reduction principles are grounded in the concept that if individuals engage in risky behavior, it is in the state’s interest to ensure there are options with which they can mitigate potential harm. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 480,000 Americans die each year because of smoking and second-hand smoke. The Oregon Health Authority reports that smoking kills 8,000 Oregonians each year. The Legislature should not discourage people from making potentially life-saving behavioral changes—something that could significantly reduce those numbers.
Researchers note that tobacco and nicotine products involve a continuum of risk. Vaping and some types of smokeless tobacco are at the lower end of that risk continuum—and are closer in risk to approved nicotine-replacement therapies such as nicotine gum and patches. Combustible cigarettes are at the highest end of that continuum. The top British public health agency, Public Health England, explains that vaping is 95 percent safer than smoking combustible cigarettes. Although e-cigarettes are far from risk-free, they do not contain the 7,000 chemicals found in combustible cigarette smoke.
Even Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials and the American Cancer Society have come around to the belief that e-cigarettes offer potential health benefits for smokers who switch to these products. Many smokers resist using FDA-approved therapies for a variety of reasons, so it is counterproductive to ban the use of products they actually use to reduce their dependence on combustible cigarettes. Further, studies show that e-cigarettes have accelerated the decline in smoking.
R Street has pointed to studies finding “that e-cigarette users were more likely to switch completely from combustibles when they used non-tobacco flavors, including menthol as well as fruit, sweet or dessert flavors, likely because flavors assist smokers in disassociating a tobacco flavor with the pleasurable effects of combustible cigarettes.” Furthermore, studies from the CDC found that less than 25 percent of youth vapers began using e-cigarettes because of their flavors.
Bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products have the perverse effects of encouraging vapers to add their own flavors or follow recipes easily found on the internet. That provides an unknown level of risk compared to their use of commercially tested products. They also create black markets. Most troubling, “San Francisco’s partially implemented flavor ban was associated with higher odds of recent smoking among underage high school students relative to concurrent changes in other districts,” according to an updated 2021 JAMA Pediatrics report.
Instead of adopting a prohibitionist approach toward flavored tobacco that unintentionally harms public health, I encourage the Oregon Legislature to strictly enforce its existing age-21 law.
I respectfully urge the committee to reject HB 3090.
Western region director
R Street Institute