Banning products will not make them go away. It will only create incentives for illicit markets to offer them to adult or high school students alike.

In 2013, Vermont became a New England leader by loosening its laws on cannabis possession, making it the first to do so by a legislative vote. 

Reporting on these events for Vermont Watchdog, I noted how this move was praised by many social justice advocates after years of abuse of narcotics of all types, and the recognition by then-Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers that prohibition was not an answer.

Now, a decade later, Vermont has a thriving cannabis industry that is both legal and safe, offering jobs and removing the stigma of both patients and consumers who want to responsibly enjoy cannabis.

On another front, while prohibition has fallen by the wayside for cannabis, state lawmakers are entertaining another kind of prohibition on flavors for adult vapers. Modeled after similar efforts in Massachusetts, S.18, which passed the Vermont Senate earlier this year, would outlaw any legal vaping products available in flavors like mint or menthol. 

Though earlier testimony has focused on the availability of such products to underage youth, it would be counterfactual for Vermont to install a flavor ban aimed at adults — presumably in order to deprive minors from accessing these products — while maintaining a legal regime for cannabis, which comes with its own risks for young adults.

The fact remains that vaping devices — much like cannabis products — are not available to anyone under 21 years of age. Completely cutting off adults who would like to switch away from traditional cigarettes by using more attractive and less harmful flavored vaping devices would be a ruinous policy that would only cause more harm.

There are an estimated 16% of Vermonters who are daily smokers. As a good measure of faith, why not incentivize these individuals to switch to less harmful nicotine alternatives? If the only nicotine alternatives available to adults who want to quit smoking are tobacco-flavored, how would this be any real incentive?

Banning products will not make them go away. It will only create incentives for illicit markets

to offer them to adult or high school students alike, without regard for a safe and legal system that exists for a similar product like cannabis.

If state legislators want to make an impact and reduce smoking, the best course of action is to offer adults a regulated and safe market of flavored vaping products, while maintaining a policy of zero-tolerance for any retail shop or convenience store that sells to youth. Whether that be stiffer penalties or loss of licenses, there can be no acceptance of young people gaining access to these products. Hence, we should view this as an appropriate issue of age-gating products, much like we do for alcohol, cannabis and other goods.

With adequate checks and administration, Vermont adults deserve a system where they can legally acquire their flavored vaping products, rather than stoop to using the black market either in-state or across the Vermont border. That is a certain way to provide greater consumer choice, uphold the rule of law, and ensure that kids will not have access to these products.

This commentary is by Yaël Ossowski, deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center and a former reporter at Vermont Watchdog.

Published in VT Digger (archive #1 and #2)