Recently introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 935, would ban the sale of all tobacco products to anyone born on or after January 1, 2007, effectively enacting a prospective tobacco prohibition in California.
If the intent of AB 935 is to improve public health, a noble goal, it may be applauded. However, while there are legal and other questions about the bill, what is not in doubt is the perpetual failure of prohibition as a public policy strategy.
We should know better. Alcohol prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and permitting states to decide for themselves whether to allow alcohol sales.
Similarly, in 1937, the U.S. effectively imposed a cannabis prohibition, by banning its sale if federal tax had not been paid. While the federal government has not acted to legalize cannabis, 21 states, including California, have taken matters into their own hands and now allow recreational cannabis sales.
While the alcohol and cannabis prohibitions made criminals out of millions of U.S. citizens, they did not end alcohol or cannabis use. The reason for this policy failure is rather simple. Both alcohol and cannabis use can involve risk.
Millions of adult Americans, however, choose to accept these risks, as they do both when using numerous other products and engaging in various activities. They exercise personal responsibility without causing any personal or societal harm. Risks exist, but they are known and, for the vast majority of adults using these products, accounted for. This is what distinguishes these two products from substances like fentanyl or heroin.
One can certainly debate the relative benefits and risks of alcohol or cannabis use. That’s not the point. The typical alcohol or cannabis user simply enjoys the flavor and/or feeling derived from use of these legal products. Adults knowingly make decisions about health tradeoffs every day. Do I have a salad for lunch today, or go with a burger? Exercise or sleep in?
This brings me to the proposed tobacco prohibition. Alcohol is legal in the U.S. and cannabis is becoming legal, both with appropriate restrictions. There are thousands of laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol.
Cannabis is catching up rapidly. Most importantly, sales of both products are banned to persons under the age of 21. We have realized that, while both products have some potential risks, it is far better to make them legal, taxable, and regulated, rather than leaving sale and distribution to illicit markets.
But AB 935 takes the opposite approach. Prohibitions are the “meat cleaver” of public policy and, in the case of cigars, the proposal ignores two critical facts. First, as a result of greater enforcement and educational efforts, youth usage of cigars is at an all-time low. One government survey showed that in 2021 only 0.7% of 12- to 17-year-olds had used a cigar in the past 30 days.
Second, adults act responsibly when it comes to enjoying cigars; indeed, most tend to smoke only occasionally. According to a study examining federal survey data, only 1.3% of adults report “frequent use” of cigars. For premium cigar smokers, the number is even lower, with only 0.4% reporting “frequent use.”
Rather than the prohibitionist approach proposed in AB 935, history, and good public policy show that a lighter touch is in order for cigars. Cigar enthusiasts exercising personal choice and responsibility should be extended the same regulatory prerogatives extended to alcohol and cannabis users.
David M. Ozgo, an economist, is the president of the Cigar Association of America.