The latest tobacco bans will only hurt tax revenue

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I have a consistent morning routine. I wake up, drink my coffee, check the Times, pet the cat and step out onto the front porch to light up a Camel Crush. It’s not healthy, nor wise, but as an adult over the legal tobacco purchasing age, I have the right to make that choice. Or so I thought.

It appears that my routine will soon change. Last month, the same legislative body that brought us a proposed ban on the word “bitch” and youth tackle football, voted 127-31 to ban all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes like Camel Crushes. The bill passed the Senate handily, and was promptly signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker.

This bill is thoroughly misguided in every conceivable way. First, it won’t do anything to stop the residents of the 61 cities and towns that border other states, or any resident for that matter, from driving next door to New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut or Rhode Island to buy their menthol smokes. 

Like the high state tax on tobacco in Massachusetts, such a ban will actually encourage smokers to spend their money elsewhere, stimulating other states’ economies at the expense of our own. Why would a menthol cigarette smoker in Lowell spend $11 on a pack of Marlboro reds when they could purchase a carton of ten packs of greens in Nashua for around $60?

The brilliant minds of The Massachusetts State House included another provision in their latest ban that they’re sure will help recoup lost revenue: a 75% tax on e-cigarettes and vapes. 

Assuming that the current ban on the devices is lifted as planned today, that means consenting adults over the age of 21 will soon be able to take the income they already paid taxes on, get in the car they are taxed to drive and drive down the road they are taxed to maintain to the general store, where they can buy a Juul that’ll cost nearly twice as much as it does in other states.

A ban on menthol cigarettes also won’t do anything to stop those already addicted to nicotine from choosing other methods of smoking. Smokers are going to smoke until they decide to quit. Of course, smoking is an objectively poor decision, but it’s just that: a decision. 

Addiction plays a large part, and for many, quitting isn’t as easy as just stopping cold turkey. But as a reasonable adult, I know full well that there are resources available to help me quit. Until I choose to do so, I’m going to smoke. It doesn’t matter if I smoke menthol cigarettes or non-menthol cigarettes. That’s the basic economic principle of substitutes at work.

That fact leads us to a far simpler objection: despite every attempt by legislators to tell us otherwise, this ban on menthol cigarettes isn’t about “the children” or the health of the Commonwealth. Just like the vape ban and the raising of the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, the ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco is meant to send a message that tobacco use is bad. 

There’s no need to send that message. The majority of smokers know this. They, like myself, paid attention in health class when their health teacher showed them a picture of a healthy lung next to something that resembles a molten rubber tire. 

Rep. John Mahoney, a Worcester Democrat who chairs the Joint Committee on Public Health where the bill originated, told MassLive that tobacco flavors “were created and designed for one reason only: for young people to become addicted to nicotine and to become lifelong users.”

Alcohol should be a far more pressing concern for Mahoney than cigarettes. According to a 2005 study by the Center for the Study of Law and Enforcement Policy, research shows that flavored alcoholic beverages “are popular with underage drinkers, particularly teenage girls, and that the industry uses marketing practices that appear to target youth.”

Banning flavored tobacco is being marketed as a valiant effort by well-intentioned state legislators to “save the children.” It isn’t. It’s another brazen attempt by the Commonwealth to tell consenting adults how they ought to behave. It’s wrong, and it won’t work, because prohibition never does. Meanwhile, as legislators fight over my right to light up, I’ll be making a few trips to New Hampshire, where legislators seem to just get it.