While Michigan’s flavor ban won’t help kids, it will harm adults.
“As governor, my number one priority is keeping our kids safe,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told The Washington Post. Unfortunately, her executive order to ban flavored e-cigarettes will not accomplish that goal. Instead, this misguided attempt to limit youth vaping will undermine the harm reduction benefits of e-cigarettes for adult smokers and will increase police interaction among vulnerable populations — including kids themselves.
Tobacco users who switch from combustible cigarettes to e-cigarettes experience various improvements in health. These include quick improvements in lung function and reduced exacerbation of COPD symptoms, research shows. Using e-cigarettes also helps people quit smoking altogether, with twice the success rate of other quit methods. Punishing people in possession of these safer products while leaving combustible products alone will do little to improve public health.
Everyone can agree that protecting our children is paramount, but the flavor ban does nothing to aid in this effort. Researchers have yet to demonstrate that an e-cigarette flavor ban will prevent minors from obtaining and experimenting with tobacco products, including far more dangerous products like combustible cigarettes. This means that the ban will not only make adult smokers less likely to switch to vaping or quit tobacco altogether, but also will not succeed in its primary aim of reducing youth vaping rates.
As a secondary effect, the ban also creates a greater opportunity for people — including adolescents — to interact with law enforcement, putting them at increased risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system. This is bad for communities. A report by the National Research Council found that “unduly harsh interventions and negative interactions between [people] and justice system officials can undermine respect for the law and legal authority.”
These interventions are, indeed, unduly harsh. According to the executive order, anyone found with four or more flavored vaping products is “presumed to possess said items with the intent to sell.” This is punishable by imprisonment of six months and a fine per item. Given that disposable e-cigarettes and pods are often sold in packs of four or five, the fines and years of imprisonment can easily add up.
The danger here is particularly pertinent in Michigan, which automatically treats 17-year-olds as adults, placing them in the adult prison system and saddling them with an adult criminal record. Young people in the adult system have higher suicide rates than those who are placed in the juvenile system and often do not receive proper educational services while incarcerated. In the long term, they become less likely to receive employment opportunities, which hurts our economy and society in general.
Gov. Whitmer is encouraging state legislators to codify her ban into law without regard for these negative outcomes. Instead, lawmakers should look to other solutions. One option that is already in motion would be to increase the age of purchase to 21. Another would be to follow the Federal Drug Administration’s example in funding anti-smoking advertising campaigns. Researchers have estimated that just one of those campaigns prevented between 380,000 and 587,000 young people from smoking.
Every Michiganian deserves a healthier and safer state. But the governor’s decision to ban flavored e-cigarette products could lead down a different, less appealing path.
Jesse Kelley (@JessDKelley) is the Government Affairs Manager for Criminal Justice at the R Street Institute. She previously worked with the Marijuana Policy Project and as a criminal defense attorney.
Carrie Wade (@CarrieLWade) is the Director of Harm Reduction Policy at the R Street Institute. She previously worked at The Scripps Research Institute and the University of Minnesota as an addiction researcher.