BOSTON — Public health advocates on Tuesday cheered the emergence of a bill in the Massachusetts House that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products and tax e-cigarettes, despite warnings by some with ties to the industry that a ban could lead to a larger black market.
“There’s two factors that primarily influence whether kids use tobacco — one is the availability of flavors and the other is price,” said Kevin O’Flaherty, director of advocacy for the Northeast region of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
O’Flaherty said the House bill would address both. “So many kids who use these products initiate on flavors,” O’Flaherty said. “By passing this policy, and increasing the price on e-cigarettes as well, this really will do more to help decrease youth initiation than probably any policy Massachusetts has ever considered.”
The Massachusetts House plans to vote Wednesday on a bill, H.4183, that would ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including mint and menthol. The bill would also impose a 75% excise tax on all electronic cigarettes.
The goal is to limit the number of young people who are getting addicted to nicotine through vaping. According to the state’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 41% of high school students said they had once smoked an e-cigarette, and 20% reported vaping currently. Only 11% reported smoking currently. Nearly 10% of middle schoolers had tried an e-cigarette at least once.
The bill is coming up amid a national outbreak of severe, vaping-related lung illnesses.
Deirdre Cummings, legislative director of the consumer group MASSPIRG, said the bill will protect the health and safety of children. “Flavors are the gateway in what brings young kids in for a lifetime of addiction to nicotine,” Cummings said.
Cummings said banning all flavored tobacco products, including mint and menthol, will ensure that young people who vape strawberry or mango-flavored oil will not simply switch to smoking mint cigarettes.
The most vocal opposition to the policy has come from convenience store owners, who say the ban on menthol cigarettes will put them out of business.
Jonathan Shaer, executive director New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, called the bill “absurd,” particularly its ban on menthol cigarettes. Shaer said it is convenience store owners who stop teenagers from buying cigarettes by checking their identification.
“This bill would remove the last barrier to youth access and use of menthol cigarettes,” Shaer said. “The consequence will be the expansion of the black market we know already exists.”
Shaer said banning menthol cigarettes will encourage people to buy from other states, online retailers who break the law and black-market dealers.
He also said the 75% tax on e-cigarettes would not make up from the estimated $250 million that the state would lose in excise and sales tax revenue from cigarette, cigar and vape product sales.
The ban on menthol cigarettes has a racial dimension, since menthol cigarettes are particularly popular in the black community. At a recent rally, convenience store owners criticized policymakers for restricting a product that is more popular among blacks than whites.
Corneal Allen of the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association said in a recent statement, “The ban on menthol cigarettes sends a message to all blacks and minorities in Boston that they aren’t smart enough to choose, but white people are.”
Others say the ban will help the black community.
Kathleen McCabe, managing director of policy and practice at Health Resources in Action, a public health policy organization, said she is happy to see menthol included. “The tobacco industry has practiced decades long predatory marketing practices in black communities that have disproportionally resulted in black smokers smoking mentholated products,” McCabe said.
Cynthia Loesch-Johnson, co-chair of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council, a civic association in Dorchester, a diverse neighborhood in Boston, said her community has 19 stores selling tobacco within one mile, and menthol cigarettes are the most popular product.
“The research shows the tobacco industry targeted African American communities using menthol products,” Loesch-Johnson said. “If menthol products are left out of the ban, African American communities are left out of the protection of the ban.”
An amendment filed by Rep. Christopher Hendricks, D-New Bedford, would remove menthol from the list of banned flavors.
Fourteen amendments to the bill will be considered Wednesday. One amendment by Rep. Susannah Whipps, an independent from Athol, would allow flavored tobacco products to be sold in adult-only retail tobacco stores. Another amendment, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, would dedicate a portion of the new excise tax revenue to grants for small businesses started by women and minorities. Another amendment would clarify that hookahs and water pipes are not included in the ban.
Senate Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, wants to continue Baker’s current temporary ban on all vaping products, which is set to expire Dec. 24 barring court challenges, until the permanent ban on flavored tobacco products would take effect on June 1, 2020.