The California Legislature will soon consider Assembly Bill 935 which would ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone born after January 1, 2007. As the state prohibits the sale of flavored tobacco products and maintains a legal smoking age of 21 years old the market is already over regulated. This new restriction would further push tobacco products into the black market, causing more harm to consumers in the long run. For the health and welfare of the state population, lawmakers need to keep their hands off the tobacco market and promote policies aimed at harm reduction.
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The author of the bill, Assemblymember Damon Connolly, claims that the legislation will prevent the next generation of Californians from becoming addicted to tobacco products. Connolly is not alone. Two similar bans have been enacted in New Zealand and the city of Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline’s passage of their Tobacco-Free Generation ordinance was preceded by an increase of the legal age to purchase tobacco and a total ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products. Such preventative regulations are becoming the trend.
But before adopting this rule for its noble cause, California lawmakers should ask whether regulations like this have ever effectively prevented tobacco use: The short answer is no. While it’s too soon to know the effects of the bans in New Zealand or Brookline, a 2023 study found that a ban on menthol cigarettes throughout Massachusetts actually increased the prevalence of smoking among black adults from 2017 to 2021. Another study found that the sale of menthol cigarettes in surrounding states increased when Massachusetts’ statewide ban was introduced as individuals bought the product in larger quantities to stock up for themselves or redistribute on the black market.
While evidence suggests that increasing regulations will have a negligible effect on tobacco consumption, lifting prohibition regulations has seen positive results in the past. In 2014, DC voters approved a ballot initiative to decriminalize the possession and consumption of cannabis in small quantities. While the initiative still prohibited the sale or purchase of cannabis — the drug was still an illegal substance according to federal law at the time — it allowed entrepreneurs to develop a “gifting” market where individuals could purchase a low cost item (like a sticker or bottle of water) at an inflated price, and then be gifted the goods that they actually came for “free of charge.” By providing its citizens with a pathway to buy regulated cannabis products, the DC government helped to mitigate the risk that consumers would purchase these products on the black market.
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If past history is any indication, Califorina’s new rule will do nothing to protect consumers — but it could cause them harm. Thankfully, AB 935 would not directly penalize individuals born in or after 2007 for using or possessing tobacco. Instead, retailers who illegally sell these products to underaged individuals will be fined. However, consumers will feel the impact of these fines as businesses will likely pass on the burden through increased prices. Due to increased prices and stricter age limits, consumers will resort to other means such as dealers and counterfeit products to acquire and consume tobacco, many of which will be unregulated for safety and potentially more harmful to the consumer.
Because possession of tobacco products by individuals under the age limit is not prohibited, it is completely possible that a gifting system for tobacco products will be developed in California. But this would entirely defeat the purpose of the proposed legislation. It is more likely that consumers will choose to travel to neighboring states (the majority of which have lower taxes on cigarettes) or buy off the black market to get the products they want, as was seen in Massachusetts. California legislators can’t effectively mitigate the risk of tobacco addiction for the next generation by imposing a ban on sales. Their best bet is to reduce harm by providing resources to help already addicted individuals quit the drug or promoting the use of vapes over the traditional cigarette.
Sofia Hamilton is a Research Associate at a DC think tank and a Contributor with Young Voices where she focuses on issues related to health care, housing, and welfare. Her work has previously appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Real Clear Markets, and Inside Sources.