California became the largest U.S. state to ban flavored tobacco products on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports, with voters upholding a law that restricts the sale of products including menthol cigarettes and fruit-flavored vaping liquids.
As of Wednesday morning, 41% of Californians’ ballots had been counted. Within that group, almost two-thirds voted in favor of the ban, according to the Associated Press, which was enough to declare a win. The policy does not apply to hookah, premium cigars, or loose-leaf tobacco.
It was a long and expensive road to reach that outcome. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the sale of flavored tobacco in 2020, but it was met with strong pushback from the tobacco industry. More than 620,000 verified voters signed on to a Big Tobacco-backed initiative to reverse the law, landing the issue on ballots this year as Proposition 31. Voters could either opt to uphold or repeal the law.
Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to ban flavored-tobacco sales in 2019, and several other states—including New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have placed similar restrictions on some flavored products. Historically, California has favored tobacco regulation. In 2019, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban vaping products, and the cities of Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach have since outlawed almost all tobacco sales—flavored or unflavored.
Still, Proposition 31 turned the country’s most populous state into a battleground. Tobacco companies including Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds reportedly spent more than $20 million on their campaign to reverse the ban—a figure dwarfed by the funding provided by billionaire anti-tobacco advocate Michael Bloomberg in support of the law. According to Politico, Bloomberg personally contributed most of the $71 million spent in support of the ban.
Bloomberg and other anti-tobacco advocates have fought for years to limit the availability of flavored tobacco. They notched a big win earlier this year, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intent to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, citing their role in hooking new smokers and keeping current users addicted. But opponents argue that menthol bans only push users to non-flavored tobacco products and could add to discriminatory policing issues, since menthol cigarettes are disproportionately used by Black Americans.
There’s also plenty of debate over the role of flavors in e-cigarettes. Flavor-ban proponents point to data that show underage vapers overwhelmingly choose flavored products instead of those that taste like tobacco. They argue that prohibiting flavored vaping liquids could dissuade young people from picking up the habit and potentially becoming addicted to nicotine. Meanwhile, some researchers and vaping advocates note that adults who use e-cigarettes to transition away from deadly combustible cigarettes also like flavored products and might not make the switch if palatable flavors weren’t available.
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