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A ban on tobacco flavors would drive users to Native American outlets

By Jim Calvin

The Buffalo News’ endorsement of a proposed statewide ban on flavored tobacco products (“Now’s the time to ban flavored tobacco,” Feb. 19, 2020) completely ignored the primary source of such products across Western New York.

Native American enterprises already attract 55% to 70% of the region’s non-Indian users of tobacco, flocking there to avoid New York’s exorbitant tobacco tax rates – $43.50 on a carton of cigarettes alone. State law and a unanimous Supreme Court decision notwithstanding, the tribes refuse to collect any such taxes, making their prices irresistibly lower.

The Buffalo News supports a policy that would chase the remaining 30% to 45% of Western New York’s flavored tobacco users into the waiting arms of these unlicensed, unregulated, untaxed outlets. They would still offer a wide assortment of menthol cigarettes, cherry pipe tobacco, flavored cigars and wintergreen moist snuff – ignoring the flavor ban just as they ignore every other New York State tobacco retailing restriction.

In the process, it would drive away millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue, defeat the public health objective of the policy, and destroy licensed, law-abiding convenience stores that are monitored by local health departments to ensure prevention of underage sales. You mentioned a bad tradeoff?

“If a ban makes anyone less likely to smoke, it is a good move,” your editorial asserted. What about if it makes anyone less likely to continue having to pay the high taxes designed as a financial incentive for them to stop smoking?

I’m not trying to convince anyone that tobacco use is virtuous. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do, there are great resources available to help you quit. My point is that for as long as the use of tobacco remains legal for adults, it’s in the public interest to try to confine sales of such products to places where New York State’s high taxes and extensive regulations are enforced.

There are elected leaders in Western New York who believe there is nothing that can be done about tax-free, unregulated tribal tobacco sales because of jurisdictional disputes. Actually, there is something they can do: Refrain from making the double standards any worse.

Whoever convinced you that, on paper, a flavor ban is a wonderful idea, overlooked the fact that in Western New York, the unfortunate realities of the tobacco marketplace would regrettably cause the policy to backfire.

Jim Calvin is president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, a statewide trade organization representing neighborhood retailers licensed by the State of New York to sell legal tobacco products to age-verified customers 21 and older.

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