Governor Hochul recently included a proposal to ban flavored tobacco products in New York State and raise taxes on cigarettes an additional $1.00 in her State of the State. While her goal to reduce smoking rates is laudable, history has shown that prohibitionist policies such as this will not have a meaningful impact on public health, and will have significant negative effects on our communities. In fact, the state has recently legalized cannabis, partially justified with an acknowledgement that prohibition has been harmful for disadvantaged communities. Additionally, the proposal to increase taxes on cigarette sales is a regressive tax that would hit working class New Yorkers hardest.
The exact arguments that led to the state legalizing cannabis are the same arguments against prohibiting tobacco products. When cannabis was a prohibited item, the public obtained it illegally, resulting in arrests, crime, unnecessary conflict between law enforcement and the public, no tax revenue, and an unregulated product that can be harmful to the user. If the state prohibits flavored tobacco, we will be reintroducing these negative effects back into our communities.
Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars and other products will remove these products from regulated, taxed retail stores but will not prevent them from being accessed by consumers. These products will remain readily available to consumers in nearby states, on the flourishing criminal underground market for cigarettes, and on tribal land. In the 12 months following Massachusetts’ ban of flavored tobacco products, menthol cigarette sales skyrocketed by over 126% in the Rhode Island and New Hampshire border counties. In addition to cross-border sales, the state also saw an increase in illegal smuggling, a problem New York is all too familiar with. In fact, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that nearly 54% of all cigarettes consumed in New York were smuggled in 2020, the highest in the nation. A flavor ban is a sure guarantee that this criminal activity will become more prevalent in New York.
The Governor and legislative leaders have stated that their intention this year is set on affordability and safety. Increasing taxes on working class New Yorkers does not fit nicely into that agenda, particularly when paired with a policy that is sure to increase crime.
These policies have significant downsides, but there are policies that are working. In 2021, the New York State Department of Health announced the lowest youth smoking rate on record, just 2.4%. Statewide, for all people, the smoking rate is 12.8% according to 2021 Department of Health data. The data shows that the youth smoking rate has significantly declined over the years to an incredibly small portion of the over all public, and as such, these policies would have little impact on the behavior of young people. Rather, a tax increase would be felt strongest by lower income adults who choose to smoke, and a flavor ban would hurt law abiding retailers and embolden smugglers.
Before considering this ban, the state should consider the social and economic harm it would cause and analyze whether such a ban would achieve the desired results. Instead of a prohibition of these products, the government should focus on equitable harm reduction solutions that work, like education, cessation support, underage prevention, and authorizing less harmful alternatives for all adult smokers.
The New York Association of Convenience Stores is a member-driven trade organization that leads, safeguards, and forges a favorable environment for New York State’s diverse, dynamic community of neighborhood convenience stores.
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