SAN DIEGO — Searches looking to purchase cigarettes and vaping products products online nearly doubled after California voters affirmed a law that prohibited the sale of flavored tobacco last year, according to a new study.
Senate Bill 793, which was passed by lawmakers in 2020 and upheld in a 2022 ballot referendum, sought to address high rates of youth tobacco use by banning certain kinds of products — like flavored vape cartridges or menthol cigarettes — that are disproportionately marketed towards middle and high school-age kids.
These products are also considered much harder to quit as the added flavor masks the harshness of the nicotine itself, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, researchers with UC San Diego’s Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science have identified possible gaps in the state’s tobacco control policies, as current law does not have any explicit regulations on the sale of flavored products in the e-commerce space.
Researchers say that search trends after the ban went into effect are indicative of this weakness in California’s efforts to rein in the use of these addictive products.
The study, which was published in the BMJ journal of Tobacco Control, analyzed this online behavior from January 2018 to May 2023 to understand the impact of SB 793’s implementation.
In looking at this data, researchers found that queries for online retailers of tobacco products were about 194% higher than anticipated levels for cigarettes and 162% higher for vape products.
Of the websites that these searches returned, nearly all of the first 60 results contained links to websites that offered flavored vaping products or menthol cigarettes to Californian consumers, according to the study.
These findings highlight the shortcomings of how the ban is enforced by state regulators, as there is no explicit regulation that bars online retailers with out-of-state licenses from selling to residents looking to get a flavored tobacco product that they can no longer get in-person.
“The absence of explicit regulations on e-commerce sales can create loopholes in enforcing tobacco control laws, allowing consumers to easily access restricted products online,” Dr. Eric Leas, assistant professor at UCSD’s Herbert Wertheim School and the director of the Tobacco E-Commerce Lab, said in a statement.
“Retailer licensing programs have proven to be effective in enforcing tobacco control laws. However, the exclusion of e-commerce retailers from these programs can undermine their impact,” he continued. “By including e-commerce in the definition of ‘tobacco retailer’ and ensuring strict compliance monitoring, we can close these loopholes and improve the effectiveness of tobacco control policies.”
Researchers noted that there are several options for lawmakers to address this problem, such as expanding the ban of flavored tobacco products to online sales, requiring e-commerce retailers selling in California to be licensed here or by implementing measures that block retailers without in-state licenses from selling to customers in the state.
“The study’s findings have important implications for policymakers and public health advocates, emphasizing the need for comprehensive regulations that address the challenges posed by the growing e-commerce market for tobacco products,” Leas said.