When Massachusetts implemented a ban on all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and flavored smokeless tobacco, in the middle of 2020, experts predicted it would have no impact upon smoking rates despite what proponents of the ban claimed. Critics of the ban predicted that while failing to curb smoking, the ban would impose serious cost to the Commonwealth in the form of plummeting tax revenue caused by cross-border purchases and the creation of a booming black market.
With six months of data now available, these predictions have proven accurate. As a direct result of the ban, the Bay State is losing more than $10 million a month in tax revenue to neighboring states and criminal black-market syndicates, while smoking rates remain unchanged.
The data is undisputed. Since the flavored tobacco products ban took effect, Massachusetts retailers have sold 17.7 million fewer cigarette packets compared to the same six months in the prior year, while neighboring Rhode Island and New Hampshire have combined to sell 18.9 million more as Massachusetts residents stock up across state lines. The loss to the state, already in the midst of a fiscal crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, has thus far been a staggering $73,008,000. Given fewer than $5 million of the over $500 million the state collects in tobacco excise is spent on smoking cessation programs, the remainder allocated to the general fund, this shortfall will likely lead to further tax increases, hurting struggling families and businesses at the time the can afford it least.
While the states of Rhode Island and New Hampshire have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of Massachusetts’ ban, collecting close to $50 million in additional revenue, criminal syndicates have also benefited. Even prior to the ban, illicit tobacco accounted for over 20% of tobacco consumed in Massachusetts. Contrary to popular belief that tobacco smuggling a victimless crime consisting of someone purchasing a few extra cartons across state lines, in reality most tobacco smuggling is run by multi-million dollar organized crime syndicates. These networks, who also engage in human trafficking & money laundering, have also been used to fund terrorist and the US State Department has explicitly called tobacco smuggling a “threat to national security”.
The Massachusetts Department of Revenue is not the only loser, however. Thousands of Bay State small business owners operating convenience stores and gas stations, many of whom are already struggling amid the pandemic-driven downturn, are losing even further as they are unable to sell products their competitors across the state line are able to offer, or that can be found from an illegal seller.
In addition to lost revenue and the financing of criminal activities, another adverse effect of these bans is the disproportionate harm it inflicts upon minority communities. Approximately 80% of blacks and 35% of Latinos who choose to smoke prefer menthol cigarettes, and black adults are 60% of cigarillo and non-premium cigars smokers, with these products often flavored. For this reason, civil liberty organizations such as the ACLU and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership oppose flavor bans as they “disproportionately impact people and communities of color.”
With flavor bans failing to reduce smoking in Massachusetts (as they have failed in multiple other jurisdictions), it is time for regulators to look for a better way to reduce smoking rates. Fortunately, one exists. Reduced risk tobacco alternatives, such as personal vaporisers, have been overwhelmingly proven to be 95% safer than combustible cigarettes, and at least twice as effective as more traditional nicotine replacement therapies, leading to the sharpest declines in both adult and youth smoking on record. For this reason, they are and endorsed by 32 of the world’s leading medical bodies and promoted as a quit smoking aid by government agencies such as Public Health England. Extrapolating from a large scale analysis by the US’s leading cancer researches and co-ordinated by Georgetown University Medical Centre, if a majority of Massachusetts smokers made the switch to vaping, close to 150,000 lives would be saved; nationally the number would be 6.6 million
The ban on flavored tobacco in Massachusetts has done nothing to reduce smoking rates or youth uptake, but has led to a sharp plunge in tax collections and done unnecessary harm to small businesses. Massachusetts is a cautionary tale for other states, demonstrating the unintended negative consequences that ill thought out bans result in.