San Francisco needs to admit it was wrong about vaping ban

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Research by the universities of Memphis and Florida into San Francisco’s banning of flavoured tobacco products suggests the measure was probably a mistake. While use of e-cigarettes fell, cigarette smoking rates increased, suggesting that the ban may have done more harm than good, finds the study published in Addictive Behaviors Reports.

The flavour ban in San Francisco City both reduced flavoured tobacco use overall and prompted attempts to quit or reduce consumption, and its impact varied by people's characteristics and the product category, the research found. However, users were still able obtain banned tobacco products through multiple ways, and the effectiveness of the ban was further compromised by retailers' non-compliance.


San Francisco cares about your health – so much so that they outright banned the sale of e-cigarettes in 2020, writes James Czerniawski in a 19 August 2020 opinion article for The Centre Square, a US journalism initiative reporting on government and the economy.

As usual for San Francisco, the ultra-progressive city sought to be a leader in the fight against electronic cigarettes, issuing one of the most stringent measures taken in the US. However, a recent study shows that the measure was probably a costly mistake. The very bans enforced by the city may well have ended up doing more harm than good.

There’s no reason to argue that smoking is a good thing, whether e-cigarettes or regular. The science is fairly clear on what happens when people smoke, it can be extraordinarily harmful to their bodies. Smoking cigarettes after all, is the leading preventable cause of death in the US, killing just under half a million a year.

San Francisco passed the measure as a precautionary principle, saying: "This is a decisive step to help prevent another generation of San Francisco children from becoming addicted to nicotine."

Bad science

But they’re relying on bad science as a basis for decisions, opines Czerniawski in The Centre Square. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), knowingly executed a campaign against vaping and e-cigarettes littered with misinformation about the products.

It is unfortunate that such an important institution would rely on such tactics, as it takes away from having a genuine conversation.

As health care writer Elise Amez-Droz put it: “Exaggerating the severity of a problem in the effort of catching public attention and bringing awareness to a harmful trend is one thing. It’s quite another to paint a highly effective alternative like vaping as a great danger and make it an imaginary public health threat – when it’s not.”

The reality is that the data doesn’t back either the FDA or the city of San Francisco in their claims. A look at the Health and Human Services Department can tell one as much. They report a consistent decline in usage of cigarettes in high school going back decades. In 2018, only 3.6 percent of high school seniors smoked cigarettes daily. Only 5 percent of high school students had reported smoking a cigarette in the past month. None of this even takes into account solid evidence showing that smoking e-cigarettes is a path to quitting from smoking in general.

The new research

In the recent study looking at the ban in San Francisco, researchers studied over 200 young adults in San Francisco who smoked e-cigarettes. The results weren’t all that great for the city, continues Czerniawski in The Centre Square.

For example, one result they found was that the sale of traditional cigarettes surged in San Francisco. That’s unsurprising, given that the option of e-cigarettes was taken away from smokers. The study also found that the ban was essentially ineffective, as people just went to retailers online and out of the city to get the thing they wanted. The ban also did not curb the use of flavoured e-cigarettes, since 60 percent of people still used them after the ban.

Additionally, instituting the ban did the city little favours with citizens. Most of the people who commented in the study about the ban did not have flattering things to say. They described the ban as “stupid”, “ridiculous” and invasive.

One commenter astutely stated that banning the sale of flavoured e-cigarettes “does nothing except make people want it more”, wrote Czerniawski in The Centre Square.

Prohibition style bans do nothing to solve the problem cities like San Francisco seek to answer. It’s as if they’ve forgotten what happened in Prohibition – in banning alcohol across the states, Prohibition made the process of buying alcohol less safe for everyone.

Trying to restrict cigarettes based on age wasn’t much more effective, as it drove the sale into less safe environments. Rather than have a conversation that could be uncomfortable for a parent with their child, San Francisco needlessly closes the door and demonises the practice, which does little to address the overarching issue of children smoking underage.

Final thoughts

The issue of teenage vaping is certainly prevalent, and it should be addressed, concludes Czerniawski in The Centre Square opinion article. However, in doing so, the city of San Francisco must acknowledge its policy failure in this arena.

Their ban isn’t achieving their stated goals, preventing citizens from having an option to pursue that could help them overcome addiction to smoking. It’s time to have a real discussion on the issue, so policy-makers can come up with an innovative solution – without engaging in policy that’s been proven ineffective time and time again.


The impact of a comprehensive tobacco product flavour ban in San Francisco among young adults

Addictive Behaviors Reports. Volume 11, June 2020


Yong Yang, Eric N Lindblom, Ramzi G Salloum and Kenneth D Ward

The authors are affiliated to the School of Public Health, University of Memphis, Georgetown University Law Center in Washington DC, and the University of Florida.



Flavours play an important role in the initiation and use of tobacco products. The FDA, states, and cities have been implementing or considering banning flavoured e-cigarettes or any flavoured tobacco products. This study empirically assessed the impact of one of the first comprehensive bans of all flavoured tobacco products other than tobacco-flavoured e-cigarettes among young adults in San Francisco, California.


Using Amazon Mechanical Turk, a sample of San Francisco residents aged 18-34 who previously used tobacco products (N = 247) were surveyed about their tobacco use both before and after the ban. Descriptive statistics and regression models were applied.


The prevalence of overall flavoured tobacco use decreased from 81% and 85% to 69% and 76% for 18-24 years and 25-34 years old, respectively. The prevalence of flavoured e-cigarettes decreased from 57% and 56% to 45% and 48% for 18-24 years and 25-34 years old, respectively.

The prevalence of cigars uses reduced as well. However, cigarette smoking increased, although not statistically significant among 25-34 years old. 66% of participants did not support the ban and 65% believed the ban had not been enforced completely. Most users reported being able to obtain flavoured tobacco products in multiple ways despite the ban.


These findings suggest that comprehensive local flavour bans, by themselves, cannot sharply reduce the availability or use of flavoured tobacco products among residents. Nevertheless, local bans can still significantly reduce overall e-cigarette use and cigar smoking but may increase cigarette smoking.


San Francisco needs to admit it was wrong about vaping


The impact of a comprehensive tobacco product flavour ban in San Francisco among young adults


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