August 5, 2020

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

California ban on flavored tobacco products advances to final Assembly Committee

Senator Jerry Hill’s SB 793 made it out of the Assembly Health Committee relatively unscathed and is now heading to Assembly Appropriations for one last hearing before going to the full Assembly.  (It already passed the Senate.)

Thanks to a massive tobacco industry mobilization, Sen Hill had to accept narrow amendments to exempt premium cigars and pipe tobacco (in addition to previous amendments exempting hookah), but the large health coalition was able to keep menthol and all other cigars in the bill. 

Keeping most cigars in the bill – including little cigars popular with poor kids – was particularly important.

The opposition letters I saw were a walk down memory lane.  A lot were from police organizations (letter1, letter2, letter3, letter4) saying the flavor ban would promote crime.   This argument has been around forever: According to these industry allies any tobacco control policy will promote crime.  To put these claims in perspective, take a look at these old tobacco industry ads opposing 1978 Proposition 5 (nonsmoking sections) and 1988 Proposition 99 (which increased the tobacco tax and created the California Tobacco Control Program).

Policy makers note that these hyper-inflated claims that reducing tobacco use would promote crime sprees never developed when assessing the same claims being applied to flavor bans today.

And, of course, there were arguments that banning flavors would cost the state money at a time that budgets are stressed.  These arguments ignore the fact that reducing smoking saves money in the short term by reducing heart attacks, lung disease and complications of pregnancy right now.  Indeed, recent work by Steve Anderson and Jim Lightwood showed that the California Tobacco Control Program has saved the state half a trillion dollars in medical costs alone.

While some of the opponents of SB 793 invoked COVID-19, the evidence is that smoking makes COVID worse.  Given the well-established targeting of the African American community by the tobacco industry with menthol products and the fact that African Americans are among the groups that suffer disproportionately from COVID, it’s hard to fathom why any African American religious leaders (letter1, letter2, letter3) are willing to support continued selling of these products, by they are.

But, hard work by health advocates, sparked by the longstanding efforts of the African American Tobaco Control Leadership Council and a big coalition, are winning the fight.

But, the tobacco companies never give up, so look for a big fight in Assembly Appropriations.  The evidence that reducing smoking and other tobacco use not only saves lives but money in the short run will likely be a particularly key argument there.

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