Bridgeport is considering an ordinance that would ban the sale of all legal flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, by licensed retailers in the city. This is a dangerous, ill-conceived policy that has failed by every measure elsewhere.
Such an overzealous ban would unnecessarily impact adults and do extreme harm to almost 150 small businesses in Bridgeport while doing nothing to protect youth from illegally accessing vape and tobacco. The City Council would be wise to abandon this concept immediately.
The goal of protecting youth from nicotine initiation through flavored vape is one we can all support. Flavored vape continues to demonstrate a relatively high rate of youth use, but traditional tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, do not. According to the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Youth Tobacco Survey, 20% of high school-aged youth report having used a vape product in the past 30 days, while only 4.9% report having used a cigarette – the lowest rate in decades.
So why does the ordinance attempt to ban menthol cigarettes? Because anti-tobacco advocates push the false narrative that a cherry flavored vape has the same user profile as a menthol cigarette. That’s simply not true and the City Council needs to see through this ruse to avoid passing an overreaching ordinance that would have many negative unintended consequences for adults, youth and the community.
Despite strong negative feelings many have toward tobacco and vape, it is important to recognize these are federally legal products with enormous market demand. In fact, menthol cigarettes represent 41.3% of the statewide cigarette market in Connecticut, a figure that is likely much higher in Bridgeport, a city that is 73% Black and Latinx. A ban does not make the demand disappear, instead it pushes it outside the legal, licensed, regulated and enforced framework that exists in Bridgeport today. A ban does nothing but dismantle that framework and cede all responsibility to others, including retailers and enforcement officials in neighboring towns. It also pushes demand to online purveyors and the black market for criminals to exploit. The notion that a ban will eliminate youth access and use is simply not based in reality.
Adult customers will only be mildly inconvenienced as they can simply drive to neighboring towns to buy the legal products they want. Ironically, youth will be impacted the least as they will continue to get vape products online or from social sources.
Sadly, local convenience stores, which have remained open throughout the pandemic and are a primary food source in many urban neighborhoods, will suffer the most as they will lose millions in tobacco sales as well as all the additional purchases of their former tobacco customers. Stores where menthol cigarette sales are a major revenue source will be forced to make difficult decisions including cutting hours, jobs or perhaps even closing.
Simply put, banning legal products from being sold in a regulated environment is poor policymaking. Bridgeport would be better served by using the existing legal framework, enforcing laws and punishing violators. You don’t have to like tobacco, but this proposed ban is misguided and creates new problems that the city will surely regret.
Jonathan Shaer is director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association.