By Tommy Gagliano
What is it about banning things that gives Andrew Cuomo so much satisfaction? Is it sucking the joy out of people that he likes? Or is he just a megalomaniac that bans things simply because he can? Either way, it is clear that telling New Yorkers that they can’t do things is Governor Cuomo’s favorite pastime. He made headlines in April, when he introduced a bill that would completely ban plastic bags in the state of New York. However he has now taken a break from his war on plastic bags to focus on fighting something equally as stupid – flavored e-cigarettes.
News broke on November 8th that Cuomo plans to completely ban flavored e-cigarettes next year, as reported by The Wall Street Journal and New York Post. If he accomplishes this, New York would be the only state where flavored nicotine products are not allowed. I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that this was announced two days after he was re-elected to serve as governor for another four years. It’s not like he knew this plan would be highly unpopular with his constituency and hurt his chances of winning the election.
This isn’t the first time e-cigarettes have been in Cuomo’s crosshairs. In October 2017 he signed a bill to ban vaping anywhere that cigarettes are prohibited. He also proposed a 10-cent-per-milliliter tax on e-liquid (even e-liquid that does not contain nicotine) in January 2017. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since Cuomo loves taxes almost as much as he loves banning things. To put the 10-cent-per-milliliter tax into perspective, a 30 mL bottle of e-juice from Vape Wild costs $2.99. The tax on a 30 mL bottle would be $3, doubling the price of the juice. The proposal was rejected by state lawmakers.
Cuomo’s reasoning behind the flavored e-cigarette ban is that too many underage kids are vaping, and something needs to be done to stop them. It is true that there has been an enormous spike in underage vaping recently. The Health Department reported that the percentage of high school students that use e-cigarettes has increased from 10.4 percent to 27.4 percent over the past four years. It is also true that fruit and other flavored juices are more popular with teens than tobacco or unflavored juices, likely for the same reason that a teen is more likely to drink a Mike’s Hard Lemonade than a Corona. Cuomo is also right that something needs to be done about underage vaping. Nicotine is addictive, and while vaping is much healthier for you than smoking cigarettes, there are still negative health consequences. 15-year-olds vaping because they want to fit in and then getting hooked on nicotine for the rest of their life is not an ideal situation. However, banning all flavored e-cigarettes is a dictatorial and lazy “solution” to the problem.
Going back to a comparison used in the previous paragraph, trying to combat underage vaping by making all flavored e-cigarettes illegal would be like trying to combat underage drinking by making Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Redd’s Apple Ale, Smirnoff Ice, and similar drinks, as well as any liquors with added flavors, illegal. It’s a problematic proposition because it prevents adults from enjoying these products too. It also simply won’t work. In the same way that underage drinkers will just switch to beer or liquor when they can no longer buy fruity drinks, underage vapors will switch to unflavored e-liquids, or even to more dangerous products like cigarettes. There are better ways to cut down on underage vaping without inhibiting adults’ right to choose. One way would be to prohibit the sale of tobacco/nicotine products online. Many vaping websites require customers to upload photos of the front and back of their ID in order to complete their purchase, but it isn’t hard for underage kids to steal their parent’s driver’s license for a few minutes to take pictures of it. Increasing the penalties for selling tobacco or nicotine products to people that are underage is another way to decrease underage use. If retailers are scared of getting into legal trouble, they will be more careful about who they sell to.
Another important factor to consider that Cuomo seems to be overlooking is the minors that already vape, and either have no desire to stop or are addicted to nicotine. Here in Binghamton, many will likely make the short trip to Pennsylvania, and buy whatever they want there. Most of New York State, however, does not have that luxury. Underage vapers will either have to acquire their flavored juices and pods on the black market (which will inevitably come into existence), or switch to different products. It is possible that many vapers will switch to unflavored juices. However, if Cuomo gets his way, we’ll likely see a sharp increase in cigarette use, among kids and adults alike. It’s important to remember that e-cigarettes were first introduced as a healthier alternative to cigarettes to help smokers quit. If you get rid of the healthier alternative, everyone with a nicotine addiction will go back to the far more dangerous option.
When discussing a proposal like this one, it’s important to also consider the impact it will have on businesses. Vape shops and similar small businesses in New York State would become virtually extinct, and their employees would be put out of work. While e-cigarette companies would be able to survive just fine off of the remaining 49 states (assuming Cuomo doesn’t set a precedent that other states decide to follow), losing out on nearly 20 million potential customers would undoubtedly hurt. There is one industry that would benefit from this though – Big Tobacco. As stated previously, a ban on all flavored e-liquids would surely lead to an increase in cigarette use in New York. I’m sure no one at all anywhere is going to object to legislation that benefits Big Tobacco at the expense of small businesses.
Now that we’ve discussed the finer details about why banning flavored e-cigarettes is an awful idea, let’s look at the fundamentals: The government should not be able to tell adults that they can’t use certain nicotine products. If I’m of age and want to vape e-juice that tastes like Fruit Loops, I have every right to do so. How does that expression go again? My body, my choice?
To get a better understanding of the topic, I reached out to four e-cigarette users that are either currently under the legal age in their county, or were underage when they started using nicotine products. I first asked them why they started vaping in the first place. “I liked getting the headrush” said Joe. Both Nick and Allison said that it made them feel relaxed, and helped with anxiety and stress. Other Joe said “I started vaping because I wanted to start cigarettes… but I figured the safer way would be to vape.” Other Joe happened to be in a vape shop when I was asking him these questions, and he added that 3 out of the 5 people in the shop said they started vaping as a way to quit cigarettes. While none of the four cited taste as a reason that they started vaping, when asked most of them did say they prefer sweet flavors. All four said they like fruit flavors, two enjoy mint, and one is a fan of dessert flavors. Finally, I asked them what they would do if Cuomo gets his way and flavored e-cigarettes are banned. “Be very upset,” Joe responded, “I don’t use e-cigarettes often so it’s fine.” “It wouldn’t hurt me since I don’t do it anymore,” Nick said, “But I wouldn’t want it to be like that as people rely on e-cigs as a de-stressor and a way to help quit smoking.” Other Joe’s response was quite different. “If all flavors [are banned] I’d just start smoking menthol cigarettes.” “There’s always ways around everything.” Allison said. “I mean, there are so many drugs that are illegal and people still find a way to get them. Anyone could ban anything and people still find a way.”
Underage vaping has become a problem in New York, and in the United States as a whole. Something needs to be done about it, but Cuomo’s plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes is problematic, lazy, and just flat-out stupid. Adults have the right to vape whatever flavors they want, and kids breaking the law is no reason to take that freedom away from them. Frankly, if your solution to a problem is to ban things until the problem goes away, you have no understanding of freedom and shouldn’t hold any political power in the United States of America.
(Image credit: http://vaping360.com/)