- - Sunday, February 21, 2021

While some consequences of the deadly coronavirus pandemic are known and obvious, like the tragic loss of life and economic devastation, there are a host of other issues that have arisen — or will — as a side effect of COVID-19. 

Some of these additional problems may be tough for policymakers and public health professionals to predict, but could still have long-term negative implications for Americans. A clear example of this was recently highlighted in a recent story in The Wall Street Journal that detailed how the “decades long decline” in cigarette sales has ended, in part, because of the pandemic. 

Americans are turning back to cigarettes for a multitude of reasons. An easy one to understand is that more people are working from home or have sadly lost their jobs and therefore have more time and a greater ability to smoke. 

Another contributing factor, which occurred pre-pandemic, is government policies that have pushed people away from products like e-cigarettes, and unfortunately pushed them back toward smoking traditional cigarettes. According to The Wall Street Journal, “some e-cigarette users turned back to combustible cigarettes because of increased e-cigarette taxes, bans on flavored vaping products and confusion about the health effects of vaping.”

While it makes sense that the government acted in the first place to put restrictions on e-cigarette products in response to therise in teen vaping, policymakers must keep in mind that if they do not make it easier for American smokers to access harm reduction products that are safer than traditional cigarettes, they are essentially encouraging people to smoke more harmful tobacco products. 

While these new regulations may have been well-meaning in their attempt to address the teen vaping crisis, they have had the unintentional consequence of limiting harm reduction products for many smokers who are trying to transition to products that even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated as less harmful. This must be course corrected now.

Technological advancements have given smokers the opportunity to transition to safer products like nicotine pouches, which eliminate the harmful carcinogens associated with smoking. For example, U.S. health officials designated Swedish Match tobacco pouches as “reduced-risk” tobacco products. 

This was the first of its kind to earn this distinction by the FDA and provides a key indicator to consumers that according to science, these tobacco pouches are less harmful than smoking. These harm reduction products come in a wide variety of options, such as nicotine gum, mints and tobacco-free nicotine pouches, and are available at certain in-person and online retailers like NicoKick.

But it is critical that Democrats, while in control of the White House and Congress, don’t institute policies that make it harder for Americans to access these products, which will add to the devastating trend of increased smoking that we are currently seeing. In turn, this rise in smoking will mean an increase in negative public health outcomes.

First, Democrats should abandon their effort from last Congress to institute a flavor ban on tobacco products. This would be especially detrimental to those attempting to transition to safer products, because these harm reduction products often come in flavors that make the products more appealing and therefore more effective. 

And given that Democrats are expected to pass multiple trillion-dollar legislative packages, one can assume based on precedent that they will look to raise taxes soon to cover the costs of these programs. One of the easiest places legislators often look to raise revenue is “sin taxes,” or taxes on things like alcohol and tobacco products.

If the Democrats go this route, they must keep in mind that if they make it more expensive for Americans to purchase nicotine replacement products, they are essentially encouraging people to pick the cigarettes back up. If Democrats are going to increase taxes on tobacco products to pay for new spending, it doesn’t make sense to treat harm reduction products, like tobacco-free nicotine pouches, the same as more harmful combustibles like cigarettes.

We all know there are often unintended consequences of government policies, and we are unfortunately seeing one play out in real time with the trend in cigarette sales. While this development has certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic, it is critical that our elected officials do not make it worse by passing ineffective flavor bans or raising the cost of the products American smokers need to transition to safer alternatives.

• Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney reelection campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.

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