More than a half of cigarettes sold in New York finance an illicit market, and more prohibitionist policies will only make things worse. Unfortunately, Governor Hochul believes that punishing smokers is more worth it than keeping our communities safe.
Hochul’s attempts to combat the illicit market have been unsuccessful, with black market sales growing even after the state launched a “cigarette strike force” in 2014.
In his recent State of the State address, Hochul announced his intention to raise the tax on cigarettes to $5.35, the highest in the nation. Worse yet, he declared his intention to ban flavored tobacco products statewide. A decision of this magnitude would leave smokers with very few alternatives to get away from cigarettes, considering that flavored vaping products were made illegal in 2019. Earlier this week, state Assembly and Senate lawmakers rejected the flavor ban, but kept the tax increase. in his budget proposal, casting doubt on whether the ban will be included in the final budget deal in the coming weeks.
A prohibition approach has already been shown to be ineffective, as was seen with alcohol nearly a century ago. Even with the statewide bans, consumers continue to seek tobacco and vaping products, fueling illicit markets and cutting into state tax revenue.
Banning flavored tobacco would also create a distraction for the New York police, which is already strained by an increase in crime. New York City saw a crime spike of higher than 23% this past year, however, Hochul’s new agenda would have the NYPD pestering convenience store owners to clear their shelves instead of protecting their communities.
While the desire to protect youth from harmful products is understandable, youth smoking has been on a steady downward trend. Despite having the most expensive cigarettes in the country, 12% of New Yorkers continue to smoke. And instead of giving those smokers a way out of traditional cigarettes, which often come in the form of flavored tobacco products, this plan would punish both smokers and those desperately trying to quit.
Many have also criticized the Hochul administration’s clear double standards. Since the legalization of recreational marijuana, flavored cannabis products have flooded the market with few restrictions against advertising aimed at youth. From edibles to cannabis vaporizers, the wide availability of flavored cannabis products would present a much more concerning situation with regard to substance abuse among youth if the same logic applied to tobacco products applied.
Rather than trying to kill off all potentially dangerous products, Hochul should work to limit the overall damage to public health. A harm reduction approach would mean working to educate and convert longtime smokers to less harmful products, such as vaping devices or tobacco-free nicotine packs.
If consumers continue to seek products on the illicit market or across state lines, a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products will only make New York less safe. Police should focus on preventing and stopping crime, not policing neighborhood stores for tobacco products. New York already gives away more than a billion dollars in foregone tax revenue to bootleggers, and a ban would simply eliminate this source of revenue for the state that helps finance smoking prevention and smoking-related health care costs. The Governor needs to rethink her plans for 2023 to truly promote public health and public safety.
Miranda is president of the Hispanic Federation.