San Fran­cisco’s e-cig­a­rette ban isn’t just bad pol­icy, it’s bad for pub­lic health

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - OTHER VOICES

Any­one over 21, and with an ID to prove it, can pur­chase cig­a­rettes, booze and even mar­i­juana in re­tail es­tab­lish­ments across San Fran­cisco. But as soon as next month, one age-re­stricted prod­uct won’t be avail­able for pur­chase, not even on­line. That’s be­cause San Fran­cisco officials, in a mis­guided at­tempt to curb teen vap­ing, are mov­ing to ban sales of all elec­tronic to­bacco prod­ucts to any­one within the city un­til the fed­eral gov­ern­ment adopts reg­u­la­tions on them.

The San Fran­cisco Board of Su­per­vi­sors gave a ten­ta­tive thumbs-up to the ban last week, and the su­per­vi­sors are ex­pected to reaf­firm their sup­port in a fi­nal vote Tues­day. We hope the su­per­vi­sors will see the light be­fore then. Not only is it bad pub­lic pol­icy to out­law a le­gal prod­uct that’s widely avail­able just out­side the city’s bor­ders, but it’s bad pub­lic health pol­icy to come down harder on the lesser of two to­bacco evils.

Elec­tronic cig­a­rettes are new enough that we don’t fully un­der­stand the health ef­fects from vap­ing, which in­volves in­hal­ing the fumes pro­duced by heated liq­uid nico­tine. Nico­tine in any form comes with health risks. But it’s well es­tab­lished that smoke from con­ven­tional com­bustible cig­a­rettes can kill both smok­ers and by­standers, and that some long­time smok­ers have been able to quit that deadly habit by switch­ing to vap­ing.

Granted, teen vap­ing is a se­ri­ous con­cern. While smok­ing rates have dropped sig­nif­i­cantly among U.S. mid­dle school and high school stu­dents — they’re down to just about 8% — elec­tronic cig­a­rettes are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity rapidly. In less than a decade, e-cig­a­rette use among U.S. teens has soared from less than 2% to more than 20%. In just one year,

from 2017 to 2018, teen use in­creased by 36%. The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion re­ports that, as of 2018, about one-fifth of all U.S. high school stu­dents re­ported us­ing an elec­tronic cig­a­rette in the last 30 days. By com­par­i­son, San Fran­cisco’s Youth Risk Be­hav­ior Study de­ter­mined that as of 2017, just 7% of the city’s high school­ers had re­ported vap­ing in the last 30 days.

It’s an alarm­ing trend that pub­lic health officials and the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion are look­ing to re­verse. The FDA has been work­ing on rules to pro­hibit kid-friendly fla­vors in all to­bacco prod­ucts and to reg­u­late the man­u­fac­ture of elec­tronic cig­a­rettes, but the process has moved ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slowly. That’s re­gret­table, but the feds’ slow pace doesn’t jus­tify San Fran­cisco’s ex­treme in­terim ac­tion. Be­sides, there are other prod­ucts not tar­geted by this ban that the FDA has yet to deem safe for con­sump­tion, such as mar­i­juana, which re­cently be­came le­gal for recre­ational use in Cal­i­for­nia.

More­over, the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of a ban on just this one to­bacco prod­uct are con­cern­ing. In ad­di­tion to be­ing easy to evade — plenty of e-cig­a­rettes will still be avail­able at re­tail­ers a short drive down the penin­sula — the pro­hi­bi­tion would cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for black mar­keters in­side the city’s bor­ders. In a per­verse twist, that might make it eas­ier for teens to buy vap­ing equip­ment be­cause e-cig­a­rette boot­leg­gers are not likely to check IDs.

And here’s an even worse sce­nario: If adults who vape can’t get their hands on re­place­ment nico­tine car­tridges, they might take up tra­di­tional cig­a­rettes to get their fix.

There are more rea­son­able ways to at­tack teen vap­ing than crim­i­nal­iz­ing elec­tronic cig­a­rettes for every­one. The state is al­ready try­ing one: Two years ago it raised the le­gal age for all to­bacco prod­ucts from 18 to 21, which cut off le­gal ac­cess to those prod­ucts for teens who may still be in high school and might pur­chase elec­tronic cig­a­rettes for their younger school friends. San Fran­cisco adopted an­other last year: ban­ning fruit and candy fla­vor­ings that ap­peal to teens. The city hasn’t given this nar­rower ban much of a chance to show re­sults, how­ever. A third pos­si­bil­ity would be to re­strict e-cig­a­rette sales more tightly, such as by per­mit­ting only re­tail out­lets that use point-of-sale ID read­ers and re­strict­ing how many elec­tronic cig­a­rettes can be pur­chased at one time.

San Fran­cisco has often been a pi­o­neer in smart, pro­gres­sive pub­lic pol­icy, but in re­cent years it has im­posed a flurry of more in­tru­sive re­straints, such as for­bid­ding high-tech de­liv­ery ser­vices and try­ing to ban com­pany cafe­te­rias. The pro­posed ban on e-cig­a­rette sales is an­other over­reach in the name of the pub­lic good.

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