Sometimes legislators like to think the easiest solution to a problem is to pass a bill. As a former policy advisor in Wisconsin’s legislature, I’ve seen this firsthand as bills came across my bosses’ desks.
I don’t assume any malintent or grandstanding, either. Issues like addressing smoking addiction are serious problems, and trying to find solutions is good. But far too often, state legislators try to fix a problem using the strong arm of government while failing to consider whether the policy change will result in the desired goal.
In the case of Hawaii’s House Bill 551, it most certainly will not.
Unfortunately, legislators in Hawaii are considering a bill to ban flavored tobacco products. What could be more simple than outlawing a product widely believed to have detrimental health effects on the lives of their constituents? If you say no, it’ll stop, right? Unfortunately, no.
Policymakers in Hawaii should think twice before voting yes on HB 551, a ban on flavored tobacco products. The unintended consequences of the legislation have to be considered.
To defend this bill, the authors have used smoking deaths as a rationale to support the legislation. However, this bill also bans proven alternatives — yes, many flavored — that people have utilized to stop smoking, such as vaping products. Banning these flavored options will have the opposite effect of the bill’s intended purpose for many and could result in people returning to smoking.
Furthermore, as Hawaii’s senators and representatives consider this proposal, they should examine how this policy decision has played out in other states. Massachusetts passed a similar ban on flavored tobacco products. What was the result? As the Tax Foundation found, it was not a reduction in consumption of flavored tobacco products, just a change in where the products were bought. Despite flavored tobacco products being technically banned, people found what they wanted by either crossing state lines or using the black market.
(Hawaii should also note that ocean borders don’t make them immune from black markets. Counterfeit products have also made their way to the United States from other continents, despite being an ocean away.)
At the National Taxpayers Union, the nation’s oldest taxpayer advocacy group, we also have concerns about what this bill could mean for tax revenues in Hawaii. As proven by the case in Massachusetts, the loss of tax revenue from the sale of flavored tobacco products resulted in $116 million less in cigarette tax revenue, not including sales tax losses. We by no means advocate increasing taxes. However, it’s important to note that this bill could result in a severe loss in revenue that could be used to help lower-income and minority smokers find alternatives they need to quit smoking.
As Hawaii’s elected officials look to promote the welfare of their constituents, they need to consult the reality of their decisions. Sadly, Hawaii’s HB 551 won’t achieve the health outcomes its authors seek. It’ll just create new problems legislators will need to solve.
Mattias Gugel is the Director of State External Affairs for the National Taxpayers Union.