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A ban on flavored tobacco punishes smokers and helps the black market

More than half of cigarettes sold in New York fund an illicit market, and more prohibitionist policies will only make matters worse. Unfortunately, Gov. Hochul deems it more worthwhile to punish smokers than keep our communities safe.

Hochul’s attempts to combat the illicit market have been unsuccessful, with black market sales increasing even after the state launched a “cigarette strike force” in 2014.

In her recent State of the State address, Hochul announced her intent to raise the tax on cigarettes to $5.35, the highest in the nation. Even worse, she declared her intent to ban flavored tobacco products statewide. A decision of this magnitude would leave smokers with very few alternatives to wean themselves off cigarettes, considering flavored vaping products were made illegal in 2019. Earlier this week, lawmakers in both the state Assembly and Senate rejected the flavor ban, but kept the tax increase in their budget proposal, throwing into question whether prohibition will make it into the final budget deal in the coming weeks.

A prohibition approach has already been proven ineffective as seen with alcohol nearly a century ago. Even with statewide bans, consumers have still sought out tobacco and vaping products, fueling illicit markets and slashing tax revenue for the state.

Outlawing flavored tobacco would also create a distraction for New York police who are already strained by an uptick in crime. New York City saw a crime spike of exceeding 23% this last year, yet Hochul’s new agenda would have the NYPD hassling convenience store owners to clear their shelves instead of protecting their communities.

While the desire to protect young people from harmful products is understandable, youth smoking has been on a consistent downward trend. Despite having the most expensive cigarettes in the country, 12% of New Yorkers continue to smoke. And instead of providing those smokers an off ramp from traditional cigarettes, which often come in the form of flavored tobacco products, this plan would punish both smokers and those who are trying desperately to quit.

Many have also criticized the clear double standard from the Hochul administration. Since the legalization of recreational marijuana, flavored cannabis products have flooded the market with few restrictions against advertising to young people. From edibles to cannabis vape pens, the vast availability of flavored cannabis products would present a far more concerning situation regarding youth substance abuse if you applied the same logic being used for tobacco products.

Instead of trying to stamp out every potentially dangerous product, Hochul should work to limit the overall harm on public health. A harm reduction approach would mean working to educate and convert longtime smokers to less harmful products, such as vaping devices or tobacco-free nicotine pouches.

If consumers will still seek out products on the illicit market or across state lines, a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products will only make New York less safe. Police should be focused on preventing and stopping crime, not policing neighborhood stores looking for tobacco products. New York already cedes more than a billion dollars in forgone tax revenue to smugglers, and a ban would simply eliminate this revenue source for the state that helps fund tobacco prevention and tobacco related healthcare costs. The governor needs to rethink her plans for 2023 to truly promote public health and public safety.

Miranda is president of the Hispanic Federation.

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