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Op-Ed: It’s time for Vermont lawmakers to put flavor bans to rest

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Last week, lawmakers in Vermont reviewed legislation that would impose a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products, e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches. The proposed bill might seem well-intentioned at first glance, but as we’ve seen in other states, prohibition policies do little to improve public health, and in many cases actively undermine it.

By removing tobacco alternatives from the market – including those that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers less harmful than cigarettes and appropriate for the promotion of public health – this policy would push tobacco users to unregulated products and remove a key source of revenue for Vermont’s small businesses and the state economy.

Proponents of the ban have argued that restricting access to flavored products – namely e-cigarettes and flavored nicotine pouches – would help curb youth tobacco and nicotine use. Fortunately, youth tobacco use is at a historic low, and the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that youth vaping rates were cut in half between 2019 and 2022 while only 1.5 percent of middle and high school students reported using oral nicotine pouches. This positive trend is the result of robust educational campaigns and the commitment of responsible retailers to enforce restrictions on underage purchases.

The reality is that bans on flavored e-cigarettes and oral nicotine products will only hurt public health by taking away the option of reduced risk products commonly used by adult smokers looking to quit and lead more Vermonters to switch back to more harmful combustible cigarettes. A recent study from the Yale School of Public Health found that flavored e-cigarette bans resulted in an uptick in traditional cigarette sales. This is the exact opposite of what public health officials intend.

In addition to having adverse effects on Vermonters’ health, this ban would be detrimental to the Green Mountain State’s economy by removing a key source of tax revenue and a significant portion of sales for small businesses. After Massachusetts enacted a similar ban in 2020, nearly 90 percent of sales shifted out of state, costing the Bay State $120 million in cigarette excise tax revenue in the first 12 months.

An updated note from Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office estimated that sales revenue from flavored tobacco products totaled $21.1 million in 2023, and predicted a loss of over $7.3 million in tax revenue in the first full year following a ban. Even worse, Vermont retailers’ remitted tax reports from 2023 indicate that the number may be much higher. Based on revenue reports from several Vermont businesses, retailers could expect to lose anywhere from $100,000 to well over $2 million in annual sales revenue if the state followed through with this ill-conceived policy.

It’s time for Vermont lawmakers to acknowledge that flavor bans simply do not work. Instead of following through with a ban that would have far more drawbacks than benefits for Green Mountain State residents, legislators would be well served to consider policies that would bolster education and training practices that continue to meet the objective, drive down youth tobacco use.

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