Just over a month ago, Washington policymakers worked across party lines to raise the legal age for buying tobacco products to 21 nationwide. Even before we know how well this measure is working, some lawmakers want to start chipping away at the rights of adult tobacco users. Let’s hope their effort is not successful.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-NJ, is pushing a bill to take all flavored tobacco products off the market. Enactment of the bill (“Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019,” H.R. 2339) would mean menthol cigarettes, flavored pipe tobacco and cigars, e-cigarette cartridges, and popular dips would be off limits even to adults who have enjoyed these products for years.
This is not an affirmative step to protect youth but a way to infantilize adults – and an arbitrary one at that. People over the age of 21 would still be able buy non-flavored tobacco products.
Beyond this troubling infringement on personal freedom, the bill sets the stage for all kinds of unintended consequences, some of which would actually serve to counter the stated goals of the bill. For example, as we known from our experience with prohibition, booze did not disappear and we did not become a nation of teetotalers in the 1920s.
Instead, gangsters and bootleggers became rich and powerful plying Americans with smuggled spirits and a variety of unsafe, sometimes lethal concoctions.
The flavored products targeted in the bill make up about a third of tobacco sales, adding up to around $26 billion a year. Given their popularity, we can expect a large black market to flourish. Rep. Pallone might want to protect Americans from themselves, but his bill could have the perverse effect of exposing them to unregulated, untested knockoff products sold at predatory prices. It is a fair assumption kids would find a way to get some of this contraband.
Another thing we know about prohibition is that tax revenues dry up. Black marketers do not send sales receipts to the IRS. By taking flavored tobacco products out of the economy, municipal, state, and federal tax collectors could lose up to $14 billion a year. Because revenues from so-called vice taxes often fund public health and education programs, the bill would actively undermine policies to help us stay healthy. This includes the Children’s Health Insurance Program, expanded in 2009 and funded with a hike in federal tobacco excise taxes.
We as a society have learned how to channel our propensity for risk and pleasure in productive ways. Casino gambling, state lotteries, liquor stores, and marijuana dispensaries in many states took business away from criminal enterprises and infused government coffers with revenues for a variety of functions that serve the public good.
H.R. 2339 won’t snuff out teen tobacco use. It will extinguish one more freedom adults have to make their own decisions.