San Francisco’s chief economist has confirmed that the city’s ban on e-cigarette sales will increase smoking as vapers switch to combustible cigarettes.
On June 25, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban the sale of e-cigarettes while leaving traditional cigarettes to be sold as freely as before. Rarely does U.S. anti-vaping legislation make global headlines, but San Francisco’s decision was so extreme it attracted international attention.
Amid an uproar from vapers and bewilderment among public health professionals, little attention was paid to a revealing May 15 San Francisco Chronicle interview on the subject with the city’s chief economist, Ted Egan.
Egan’s office is charged with analyzing the economic impact of legislation in San Francisco. The determinations are sent to the Board of Supervisors and are made public on the Controller’s Office website. If it’s found the legislation will have no impact on the local economy, no more analysis is conducted. Because Egan and his colleagues concluded that banning e-cigarette sales would have no material effect on the city’s economy, no further study was required.
But Egan explained to the Chronicle why his office came to the conclusion it did. It found the ban wouldn’t be bad for business because the money currently being spent on vaping products would still be spent in the city on other nicotine products, such as conventional cigarettes. When I asked Egan by email to confirm whether that quote was accurate, he responded: “The Chronicle article speaks for itself.”
Egan’s interview was given more than a month before the supervisors approved the ban. The mayor’s office, the city attorney, and all the supervisors had ample time to read his remarks, ask why the prohibition of a popular product wouldn’t affect the city’s economy, and contemplate whether boosting cigarette sales is good for public health.
When asked if they were aware of Egan’s assessment before the legislation was passed, all the supervisors’ offices, as well as the mayor’s office, declined to comment.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office, however, did respond. “The City Attorney, in partnership with Supervisor [Shamann] Walton, introduced the legislation two months before the comments in the Chronicle that you’re referring to,” John Coté, Herrera’s communications director, said via email. “At no point was tax revenue a consideration. The U.S. Surgeon General has been unequivocal in warning that we are in the midst of a youth vaping epidemic. Children’s health is more important than anyone’s bottom line.”
It’s clear tax revenue wasn’t a consideration, since the city does not expect to lose any—thanks to rising cigarette sales. So while e-cigarette manufacturers and San Francisco vape shops close, it’s happy days for the makers of Marlboro and Camel. Coté’s statement also leaves unanswered the question of whether Herrera knew the reason for Egan’s assessment.
In a city notorious for its anti-tobacco laws, the ban on e-cigarettes is the first time San Francisco has ever given a competitive advantage to cigarettes over a safer nicotine alternative. In the name of promoting public health, San Francisco is actively pursuing a policy that its top economist acknowledges will increase smoking.
“With or without a report from an economist, anyone with a modicum of common sense should be able to recognize that banning the sale of America’s most popular quit-smoking tool will inevitably lead to more cigarettes being smoked,” says Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Before the legislation had even gone to a vote, longtime anti-smoking advocates were quick to point out its obvious flaws. “This has to be one of the most insane public health proposals I have ever seen,” Michael Siegel, a physician and professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, wrote in March. “This legislation basically says: ‘We care so much about the health of our kids that we can’t allow e-cigarettes to remain on the market until they have a complete safety review. However, we are perfectly happy allowing cigarettes—which have had extensive safety reviews and been found to be killing hundreds of thousands of Americans each year—to remain on the market.”
While the details of e-cigarette regulation are still subject to fierce debate, the scientific consensus on whether vaping is safer than smoking is clear. Authorities ranging from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to the Royal College of Physicians agree that smokers who switch to vaping are reducing the health risks they face. The former head of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, has said more than once that if every adult smoker switched to vaping “it would provide a tremendous public health gain.”
Even the San Francisco Chronicle, usually hostile to vaping, believes the city has gone too far. In a June 21 editorial, the Chronicle argued: “Manufacturers should be treated with skepticism about claims that vaping is a benign habit. What vaping doesn’t deserve is a dose of shortsighted demonizing that does little to change the bigger picture of tobacco abuse and other health dangers the city is loath to confront.”
The ban is slated to take effect in early 2020, but opposition is mounting fast. The Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation, an anti-prohibition group backed by Juul (the leading U.S. e-cigarette company, which is based in San Francisco) has already gathered and submitted the necessary signatures to put the ban to a vote in November.
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