Puritanism is a weird thing, in that its modern-day adherents don’t seem to rely on any consistent principle beyond wanting to legalize behaviors they personally find acceptable and banning those behaviors that they don’t particularly like.
People on the right and the left often fall into that trap. I know conservatives who rail against the Nanny State, yet who believe the best way to deal with marijuana use is to arrest and jail people who smoke the stuff. Here in the West, progressives want to loosen up laws against drug use, but embrace a law-and-order approach toward tobacco.
In California, activists have filed a ballot initiative that would legalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms for recreational, spiritual, and medical purposes. Lawmakers recently tabled a measure that would merely have decriminalized ’shrooms after fearing that it would put Gov. Gavin Newsom in a tough spot during the recall — but it’s sure to come back next session.
Yet at the same time, they have taken an unyielding position on tobacco and nicotine use. As a libertarian, I don’t care what substances people ingest. However, the progressive approach toward tobacco — by banning flavored tobacco — does more than diminish people’s right to use what they choose. It poses a serious danger to public health.
In 2020, Newsom signed Senate Bill 793, which bans the sale of flavored tobacco products across the state. The main target is vaping. Public-health activists claim that tobacco companies are targeting teenagers by offering candy-like flavors in vape liquids, even though stores may not sell vape products to anyone under age 21. Virtually all vape liquids are flavored, so the law would essentially ban their sale.
Opponents of the measure — funded by tobacco companies and retailers — gathered enough signatures to place a referendum that could overturn the law on the November 2022 ballot. As California’s process works, the state has suspended implementation of the law until the people decide at the ballot.
Rather than wait, two of the state’s largest cities, Los Angeles and San Jose, are looking to join San Francisco in passing their own local bans. One needn’t be a fan of Big Tobacco to understand the unintended consequences of such laws. The top British public health agency, Public Health England, has determined that vaping is 95 percent safer than smoking combustible cigarettes.
Other products that such laws also largely ban include smokeless tobacco products such as snus and Zyn. Snus is a Swedish product that is so popular there that the European Union’s ban of its sale almost stopped Sweden from joining the union. (Sweden gained an exemption.) Sweden has the lowest cancer rates in Europe because of its low smoking rates. Instead of smoking cigarettes, Swedish nicotine users use these spit-less tobacco pouches.
Zyn and other similar pouches are like snus, although they contain pharmaceutical grade nicotine salts (the same thing found in nicotine gum) and contain no actual tobacco. Health wise, it’s best for people to avoid nicotine and tobacco products altogether, but it’s asinine to ban much safer products while still allowing the most dangerous ones to be sold.
The other target is menthol cigarettes, which, for a variety of past marketing and other reasons, are popular in African-American communities. Those types of cigarettes obviously pose grave health dangers, but the result will mean forcing smokers to drive long distances to purchase these cigarettes — or will promote black markets and the street sale of “loosies.”
Such sales could increase problematic police interactions. One need only think back to the death of Eric Garner in 2014 in New York City. Police thought that he might be selling loose cigarettes. California progressives argue that the criminalization of drugs leads to unnecessary police encounters yet embrace policies that will result in police interventions when it comes to tobacco. Go figure.
This is counterproductive from a health standpoint. Reasonmagazine’s Eric Boehm reported on smoking data after San Francisco banned flavored tobacco and, not surprisingly, found a study showing a doubling of recent smoking among underage San Francisco students as well as separate research showing that “one-third of U.S. vapers aged 18–34 would switch to smoking if ‘vape product sales were restricted to tobacco flavors.’”
If people need a nicotine fix and safer alternatives are banned, then they are likely to smoke cigarettes. That’s obvious, but I’ve talked to enough progressive lawmakers to know their response. They say that all tobacco use is dangerous, trot out concerns about a teen vaping epidemic, and dismiss critics as the tools of Big Tobacco. Teen vape use is a problem — but sane societies don’t ban adult-only products to keep them from youngsters.
But Puritanism is like that. H.L. Mencken definedPuritanism as the “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” That’s clearly the case here. Smokers have found a safer alternative to smoking — and public health officials don’t like that they find this to be more satisfying than FDA-approved alternatives such as nose spray and patches.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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