San Francisco’s Proposition E could mark the beginning of big tobacco’s last stand

San Francisco voters will weigh in on the future of vaping and flavored tobacco today as they vote on Proposition E. The referendum primarily funded by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, aims to overturn the city’s 2017 ban on selling flavored vaping products, hookah tobacco, and menthol cigarettes. While the ban is widely supported by health advocates, community groups, and media, R.J. Reynolds, the leading shareholder in the vaping market, has poured more than $12 million in to the No on Prop E campaign, likening the ban to the 1920s alcohol prohibition.

Health advocates argue that e-cigarettes, nicotine “juices”, and flavored tobaccos serve as less harsh gateways to smoking that hook consumers on candy flavored “safe” nicotine, while increasing their chances of smoking traditional tobacco products by three to four times down the road. They also point out the cartoon covered, bright packaging they assert is designed to appeal to children and youth. As explained in a letter in support of the measure by the American Medical Association,

Flavorings are especially attractive to new and young smokers who enjoy sweet or minty flavors that mask the harshness and discomfort of smoke inhalation. Deliberate marketing of these qualities has been tragically successful, and flavored tobacco products have been shown to increase youth smoking initiation. In fact, 81 percent of youths who have ever used tobacco products started with a flavored product, and young people cite flavoring as a major reason for their current use of tobacco products. – Dr. James Madara, AMA Executive Vice President, CEO

However, the tobacco industry denies this is the case and instead contends that the arguably less toxic products actually help people quit smoking by giving addicted smokers a safer alternative to traditional tobacco products. Backers have also sought to put a compelling face on the issue, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses like smoke shops and corner stores, and is likely to create a black market for products that will lead to increased crime.

Proposition E really pits community health v. big tobacco. As tobacco sales continue to drop worldwide with strict and graphic health warnings required internationally and large public health anti-smoking campaigns, R.J. Reynolds appears to be looking to protect the emerging revenue sources of the growing vaping industry and show other jurisdictions with weaker bans than San Francisco’s, like Oakland, Santa Clara County, Chicago, and New York, they won’t just walk away from significant profits without a fight. While a “yes” vote on Proposition E would mark win for public health and community advocates seeking further regulation of the largely as yet unregulated vaping and e-cigarette industry, a “no” could signal the beginning of the big tobacco’s next stand against.