In 2019, Massachusetts considered a complete ban on flavored tobacco and vaping products, a policy that is opposed by civil rights advocates, like the ACLU, as well as law enforcement organizations. Banning flavors, these groups predicted, would lead to an increase in illicit smuggling and prioritize criminalization over public health. Ignoring these concerns, Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts legislature plunged ahead with their proposal and the flavor ban was enacted on June 1, 2020. 

This past week, a state and federal joint investigation proved these concerns to be legitimate. On Tuesday June 16, a man from New Hampshire, 42-year-old Samuel Habib, was arrested and charged with illicit trafficking of marijuana, tobacco, and flavored vaping products. According to a press release from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, “The charges are the result of a year-long investigation into a major multi-level organization” that was bringing untaxed tobacco, marijuana, and vaping products into Massachusetts and distributing them to retail outlets.  

While executing search warrants, authorities seized approximately 750 pounds of marijuana, 250 cases of illegal vaping products, and 200 cases of THC-infused products. Additionally, more than $540,000 in cash, four cargo vans, and a luxury SUV were found and are now in police custody. 

It is concerning that the press release from Healey mentions the majority of the seized vaping products were counterfeit. Unlike the products sold by vape shops and other reputable outlets, counterfeit goods can contain particularly harmful chemicals that are not subject to any regulation or quality check. While severe lung illness has not been tied to any nicotine-containing vapes, certain illicit THC vapes have been identified as containing Vitamin E Acetate, which causes EVALI (E-Cigarette and Vaping Use-Associated Lung Injury). Without a flavor ban, there would be no incentive for consumers to purchase black-market vapes. It is highly likely that Habib’s trafficking operation would not have existed if Massachusetts was not prohibiting flavors in vapes and tobacco products. 

Geoffrey Snyder, the Commissioner of Massachusetts’ Department of Revenue, said “The work of the (Illegal Tobacco) Task Force helps to protect honest taxpayers and to recoup revenue for the Commonwealth”. The revenue Snyder is glad to have recouped, roughly $540,000, is just a fraction of the revenue that has been lost since the flavor ban was implemented. Estimates show that Massachusetts is losing more than $10 million a month in excise tax revenue to New Hampshire and Rhode Island, both of which allow the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products. The best method of recouping revenue for Massachusetts would be ending the failed prohibition on flavors, not using precious resources to enforce a policy that lacks any supporting evidence that the prohibition improves public health.  

In fact, data is emerging that illustrates flavor bans are incredibly harmful for the health of adults and youth. In New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut, cigarette sales increased after the flavor ban was enacted in a year where they were expected to decrease by 2%. In San Francisco, youth smoking rates more than doubled after a flavor ban was implemented. 

It has not yet been disclosed if Habib’s operation has any connection to organized crime, but Healey’s description of it as a “major multi-level organization” indicates that the scope of the investigation is larger than just Habib. Most tobacco smuggling is operated by multi-million-dollar organized crime syndicates that also engage in human trafficking, money laundering, and have been shown to use their profits to fund terrorism. As a result, the U.S. State Department has explicitly labeled tobacco smuggling as “a threat to national security”. 

It is undoubtedly good that the flow of Habib’s counterfeit vapes, and illicit marijuana products has been stopped by law enforcement. It is worth considering, however, if the law that created the market for his trafficking is worthy of enforcement. Evidence, from increased cigarette use to lost tax revenue, heavily suggests that flavor bans do more harm than good. While it would cause some slight bruising to the egos of Massachusetts politicians, notably the main proponent of the bill, Governor Baker, a full repeal of this disastrous policy would be in the best interests of public health in the Commonwealth.