Back in 2009, the federal government issued its first flavored tobacco restriction by prohibiting the sale of flavored combustible cigarettes other than menthol and traditional tobacco. Since then, cities, states and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all have enacted bans of varying degrees on flavored tobacco. Why are lawmakers so determined to pull these products from back bars?
The standard response is to prevent young people from picking up a nicotine habit that could graduate to cigarette smoking. Annual surveys of youth tobacco use have documented the increased popularity of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) among middle and high school students. According to the Monitoring the Future survey, the percentage of teens who vape doubled between 2017 and 2019. In 2019, then-U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams declared youth vaping a national epidemic. Anti-vaping advocates assert that fruit, candy and dessert flavors for ENDS, smokeless tobacco and cigarillos entice young people.
However, the 2020 National Youth Tobacco Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease and Prevention and the FDA, suggests the trend may be losing its luster. Fewer middle and high school-aged individuals used e-cigarettes within the 30 days prior to the survey—19.6% of high schoolers, down from 27.5% in 2019, and 4.7% of middle schoolers versus 10.5% in 2019. Still, the public messaging of a youth vaping epidemic persists, prompting legislators to push for flavored tobacco bans. The National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) tracked more than 160 local ban proposals in 2020. Massachusetts was the first to enact a statewide prohibition.
Next, legislators turned their attention to menthol. Once again, Massachusetts was the first in line, when state lawmakers added it to its banned flavors effective summer 2020. In early 2021, the FDA announced it’s investigating a potential national ban on menthol.
Convenience store owners and industry representatives, however, say bans, especially those including menthol, pose a threat to the financial health of their businesses. The New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS), along with other retail organizations, commissioned a study to assess the financial fallout of an all-encompassing flavored tobacco ban in the Empire State. Researchers concluded the removal of menthol products could cost the state more than 1,200 jobs and approximately $454 million in tax revenue. C-stores would assume the brunt of the economic pressure, losing dollar sales equivalent to the combined average income of 80 stores.
Opponents to bans also suggest the restrictions are too broad, denying access to adults, especially those who use the flavors as an incentive to transition away from smoking cigarettes.
Concerns over underage use of ENDS aren’t likely to lessen in the coming years. Industry associations, such as NATO and NYACS, advise c-store owners and managers to communicate with city and state leaders to explain the financial impact to your business and communities, citing industry research. Plus, c-store representatives should stress the effectiveness of safeguards already in place to keep tobacco products away from teenagers, such as age-verification systems and staff training.