The Future of Smoking – What California’s Flavored Tobacco Ban Means for Consumers

Last November, voters in California overwhelmingly approved a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products. However, the public health improvements that supporters hoped for have not materialized. In developed markets, heightened health-related awareness has reduced demand for traditional cigarettes. This trend is expected to continue.

What is the Future of Smoking?

Three years ago, advocates for reducing smoking and vaping won a significant victory when California voters passed Proposition 31, the cigarettes flavor ban California. Since the ban took effect in January, however, evidence suggests that the public health improvements envisioned by proponents need to materialize. Instead, the ban has pushed sales to illegal channels and reduced tax revenues from tobacco and nicotine products. Moreover, by driving consumption away from legally regulated markets, the ban undermines efforts to encourage smokers to switch to lower-risk nicotine products and to quit smoking altogether. The legal tobacco industry argued that the ban violated the federal dormant commerce clause by treating out-of-state manufacturers like in-state ones. But the court rejected that argument, citing previous decisions and the clear congressional intent behind the Tobacco Control Act, which empowers states to regulate tobacco more stringently than the federal government. In addition to banning flavored cigarettes and cigars, the ban prohibits advertising that targets youth. Schools, colleges, and workplaces must display anti-tobacco messages and adopt smoke-free policies. It encourages state agencies to disseminate tested anti-tobacco messages through radio and television, websites, video games, music and other media that reach audiences of children, adolescents, and young adults. The new law would also increase the state’s commitment to the Master Settlement Agreement and tobacco taxes to programs that support early childhood education, disease research, and smoking cessation initiatives – all programs that are critically needed in communities across California. But, as the cigarette and vaping industries continue to evolve, policymakers should consider the unintended consequences of this approach before adopting additional restrictions on these products.

What is the Future of the Tobacco Industry?

Even though tobacco products still deliver considerable profit on an aggregate basis, industry growth has been weakening within developed markets. Rising health awareness of consumption risks and smoking bans in public spaces has contributed to lower overall sales volume expansion and subdued top-line results. Nonetheless, these trends have kept the largest tobacco/nicotine manufacturers from continuing to invest in product innovation. They focus on developing smoke-free alternatives to help transition consumers from combustible cigarettes. In this context, a key factor driving these efforts has been the need for companies to bolster underlying profitability amid dwindling volume demand. To achieve this, they need to increase the share of alternative products in their portfolios and reduce the reliance on cigarette sales for a substantial portion of their overall revenues. Nevertheless, the long-term outlook for tobacco companies remains a bleak one. Cigarette volumes are declining in a relentless downtrend and, in the medium term at least, are likely to continue to fall even faster.

What is the Future of the Public Health Community?

A major challenge for the public health community will be to make the anti-tobacco message resonate in communities where it has yet to be heard. In most developed markets, increased health-related knowledge about the risks of tobacco consumption has helped to drive a decline in smoking rates. But this has yet to translate to developing markets, where the overall number of smokers continues to rise. This is partly because consumers in developing countries have more disposable income, which allows them to purchase more tobacco products than their wealthier counterparts in the developed world. But it is also because there has not been enough of a cultural shift in attitudes towards smoking. Until this changes, it will be important for the public health community to continue its efforts to promote smoking cessation, including promoting programs that offer free or low-cost counseling, education and treatment. However, it will also be necessary to implement policy and marketing initiatives that address community-level factors that influence smoking behaviors. These can include raising cigarette taxes, expanding smoke-free public places, running hard-hitting anti-tobacco advertising campaigns, reducing images of smoking on film and television, and increasing the tobacco purchase age to 21 years. Finally, it will be important for the public health field to engage new partners in the effort to change attitudes about smoking. These can include barber and beauty shops, restaurants, small businesses and faith-based organizations that can reach individuals directly. In addition, public health leaders must be willing to partner with social justice groups to champion new messages with populations that have historically been ignored or marginalized.

What is the Future of the Economy?

As lawmakers look for ways to improve the health of citizens, they should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they should encourage adults to switch from cigarettes to reduced-risk nicotine products by providing a variety of flavor options in e-cigarettes and other tobacco-related products. This will be more effective in improving public health and bolstering a free and fair marketplace. In the short term, the statewide flavored tobacco ban has significantly impacted sales. In January 2023, tax-paid cigarette sales were down by 17.3 percent compared to the previous year and excise taxes fell by 15 percent. These losses will have significant negative consequences for the state, which devotes 96 percent of tobacco taxes to specific social programs like First 5. However, it remains to be seen whether the flavor ban will have any lasting impact on smoking and vaping habits, as most smokers have already switched from traditional cigarettes to vapor products. It also needs to be made clear if the ban will prevent children from accessing these flavored products. In the long term, it will be important for researchers and legislators to study the effect of comprehensive flavored tobacco bans, including their impacts on consumers’ use of other products, such as e-cigarettes.