[Opinion] San Francisco’s Juul Ban Helps Big Tobacco

Smoking is on the decline, but as San Francisco bans e-cigarettes, users are left with two options: the black market, and harmful cigarettes. Photo: Reuters/Paul Yeung

States across the country have been flirting with the idea of banning e-cigarettes, but San Francisco, it seems, meant business. On July 1, Mayor London Breed signed the new law into effect, which bans the sale of all e-cigarettes beginning in early 2020. 

Breed and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors are hopeful that this ban will prevent e-cigarette usage by the city’s teens. But, this legislation does not prevent teen usage at all. Moreover, it creates black markets, or even worse, drives smokers back to even more harmful products: traditional cigarettes. 

The bill’s proponents, however, fail to mention a crucial fact — that teens haven’t been able to legally purchase e-cigs since 2016, when California raised its purchasing age for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. Even the writers of this new ordinance know where teens are getting their vapes. They cite research from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which reports that only 13.6 percent of high school students said their e-cigarette purchases come from stores. The remaining 86.4 percent said they came from other places, like friends and online sellers. 

And they don’t even have to go outside of California to get them. An undercover operation from the California Department of Public Health and Stanford University reported that half of the state’s vape and tobacco shops don’t even verify the age of their customers

This ordinance, however, does bring up an important point: When government institutes burdensome restrictions on products, a black market will almost always begin to flourish. This ban isn’t any different. Now it won’t just be teens working around the system — San Fransiscans of all ages will be, too.

This is an ill-advised move for several reasons, chief among them concern for smokers’ safety. Various sources, from the American Cancer Society to a government-funded review from the United Kingdom, have suggested that e-cigarettes are up to 95 percent safer than traditional cigarettes. This is crucial, as e-cigarettes do not contain many of the harmful substances known to increase the risk of lung and heart disease, and cancer. This ordinance, however, will push consumers over the age of 21 to traditional cigarettes — which are infinitely more harmful.  

Nonetheless, San Francisco Supervisor Shammam Walton celebrated this decision, dubbing it the beginning of a long war against substance abuse. “We spent a few decades fighting Big Tobacco in the form of cigarettes. Now we have to do it again in the form of e-cigarettes,” he said.

In this statement, Walton fails to recognize that the line between traditional tobacco companies is not incredibly clear. In fact, many traditional tobacco companies have significant ownership stakes in e-cigarette companies, such as tobacco company Altria who owns a whopping 35% of the e-cigarette company, Juul. 

If your goal is to beat Big Tobacco, supporting this ordinance isn’t the means to do it. This legislation simply redirects the profit streams of tobacco companies from e-cigarette sales to cigarette sales. No one benefits from this except tobacco company executives ensuring their company’s bottom line. 

This ordinance — like the state’s ban on plastic bags — is part bad policy and part distraction from San Francisco’s real issues, including excessive homelessness and overdose rates. The city whose virtues seemed to lie in innovation, health and wellness has just delivered a critical blow to all three. 

Leonard Robinson is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous publications, such as Reason, Washington Examiner, and Townhall. He resides in the Washington, DC area. 

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