California banned the sales of flavored tobacco products, but researchers say online sales have boomed

TUJUNGA, CA - JUNE 03: Gamer Aghajani, 28, left, and Mampreh Zadoorian, 28, (NAMES ARE CQ) enjoy a hookah after school and work, respectively, at Garden on Foothill hookah lounge in Tujunga, CA on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Smoking lounge owners are concerned about an L.A. proposal to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products. Under the draft proposal, Los Angeles could exempt existing "legally operating smokers' lounges," permitting them to sell flavored tobacco for consumption on site. But hookah tobacco sellers argue that the exemption is not legally workable and would provide no avenue for people to buy hookah tobacco and smoke it at home. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Gamer Aghajani, left, and Mampreh Zadoorian visit the Garden on Foothill hookah lounge in Tujunga in 2021. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

For the record:
4:55 p.m. Nov. 12, 2023: An earlier version of this article said the researchers are from the University of San Diego. They are UC San Diego researchers.

Despite California's efforts to stop the sale of flavored tobacco products, UC San Diego researchers say consumers have discovered a loophole: online shopping.

In 2022, Senate Bill 793 went into effect, prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products — making California the second state in the U.S. after Massachusetts to pass the broad law.

The bill was prompted by the growing sales of an assortment of "kid-friendly flavors" such as cotton candy and bubble gum as well as the high rates of teen use of e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes are still considered a relatively new product — sold in the U.S. for about a decade — so their impact on health is still being researched, according to the American Lung Assn. However, in 2018 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported that e-cigarettes can cause health problems, including a risk for coughing, wheezing and an increase in asthma in youths. It was also found that e-cigarettes contain a number of dangerous chemicals including acetaldehyde, acrolein and formaldehyde. These aldehydes can cause lung disease and heart disease.

In 2022, the Food and Drug Administration reported that e-cigarette use among youths as its top concern. In its 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey, the agency found that more than 2.5 million U.S. middle and high school students used e-cigarettes. The same data found that e-cigarette users preferred flavored products, with fruit flavors being the most popular, followed by candy, desserts or other flavors.

Read more: Supreme Court upholds California ban on sale of flavored tobacco products

The most recent version of that national survey reported that 2.1 million youths use e-cigarettes, with a decline in high school students using the product.

Several California counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento, adopted local bans on flavored tobacco long before the statewide law took effect.

But state and local efforts haven't stopped consumers from getting their hands on tobacco-related products such as e-cigarettes.

Researchers at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego found that online shopping for cigarettes and vaping products increased significantly in the weeks after the implementation of Senate Bill 793.

The law says tobacco retailers cannot sell flavored products, but it doesn't specifically define e-commerce businesses as retailers.

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Researchers collected weekly Google search rates related to online shopping for cigarettes and vaping products in California from January 2018 to May 2023, and identified websites marketing flavored vaping and menthol products, according to the report.

They found that shopping queries were 194% higher than expected for cigarettes and 162% higher than expected for vaping products after the Senate bill was adopted.

Eric Leas, assistant professor of the School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science and director of the tobacco e-commerce lab, said retailer licensing programs have proved to be effective in enforcing tobacco control laws.

"However, the exclusion of e-commerce retailers from these programs can undermine their impact," Leas said.

“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,” he said.

Researchers are recommending that e-commerce businesses be included in the definition of tobacco retailer within existing and future tobacco control policies as well as monitoring online compliance.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.