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Flavor Bans Haven’t Worked Before

OpEd: Flavor Bans Haven’t Worked Before, Why Pursue Them Now?
Eric Blomgren, Chief Administrator & Director of Government Affairs

New Jersey lawmakers are once again pushing for a statewide ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco products. While the aim of the ban may be well-intentioned, its outcomes would be anything but beneficial to Garden State residents – smokers and non-smokers alike. Not only would the ban do little to curb smoking, but it would also restrict access to reduced risk alternatives to cigarettes.  This will drive many consumers to seek unregulated products on the black-market–harming our state’s small businesses and economy, not to mention their own health and safety.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes that nicotine pouches are less harmful than traditional combustible cigarettes and offer better alternatives for adult smokers. Banning products that reduce the harmful effects of smoking would undermine public health and reflect poorly on the Garden State, and especially for lawmakers who are doing this in the name of public health.

The impetus behind this ban in part stems from the belief that certain flavored tobacco products – in this case menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, and flavored oral nicotine pouches – attract kids and have contributed to the rise in youth tobacco use. This simply isn’t the case. The 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that that e-cigarette use dropped 20 percent over the past year and only 1.6 percent of middle and high school students reported using combustible cigarettes, the lowest level in reported history.

Lawmakers in Trenton should be more concerned about cross-border smuggling and illegal trade when statewide flavor bans are imposed. Just look at Massachusetts. As a result of its ban in 2020, menthol cigarette sales skyrocketed in neighboring states–going up 79 percent in New Hampshire and 43 percent in Rhode Island. In the six counties that border Massachusetts, menthol cigarette sales increased by an average of 126 percent.

A menthol ban would likely result in similar purchasing trends in our state. If New Jersey retailers were suddenly prohibited from selling menthol cigarettes, menthol smokers could simply drive a short distance to gas stations and convenience stores in any one of our neighboring states to pick up a carton of smokes.

The impact this would have on our local retailers, especially those close to our border, would be extremely damaging. Not only would these businesses lose out on the sales brought in by menthol sales, which account for nearly 40 percent of statewide cigarette sales, but also the ancillary purchases – gas, drinks, lottery tickets, and food – often made by smokers. Without the in-state purchase of menthol cigarettes, the New Jersey economy would lose roughly $205 million per year in cigarette taxes and $38 million in sales tax collections, according to a fiscal note prepared by the Office of Legislative Services. With the Assembly contemplating also banning flavored oral nicotine products, the tax loss will be even more outrageous.

That’s the unfortunate reality of bans like this: they lead to unintended consequences that undermine public health, while harming small businesses and the economy. While a ban would impact where smokers can find their favorite products, it wouldn’t change their desire and ability to continue buying and smoking menthol cigarettes. The ban on reduced risk products would also eliminate products many adult smokers have successfully used as an off-ramp from cigarettes.

That is why I encourage our lawmakers to focus on enforcing current regulations and supporting our local businesses who are actively working with public and private sector leaders to prevent tobacco products from ending up in the hands of young people.