What a difference a crisis makes.
The Massachusetts House, which just a few months back couldn’t see its way clear to pass an excise tax on e-cigarettes and vaping products, is now all in on banning tobacco flavors, licensing retailers, and supporting taxes that will nearly double the cost of vaping products.
At least the reported 40 deaths due to vaping-related lung injuries nationwide (three of them here in Massachusetts) and some 2,000 injuries have gotten the attention of lawmakers — who last summer rejected an effort by Governor Charlie Baker to put a 40 percent excise tax on the product. The provision included in Baker’s fiscal 2020 budget was less a revenue-raising measure than an effort to make vaping a more expensive habit for the teen users who provide a growing market for the product.
After all, hiking cigarette taxes — combined with education programs — seemed to have the desired effect on an earlier generation.
When Baker issued a temporary ban in September on all vaping products until health officials could get a handle on exactly which products and what substance was causing the health problems, it provided legislators with another opportunity to take a broader look at the issue. That’s exactly what they have done and, to their credit, on an exceedingly short timetable.
So this week the House passed a bill that had circulated among members of the House Ways and Means Committee over the long holiday weekend. It bans all flavors of cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Those fruit and candy flavors, not unexpectedly, had proved particularly popular with younger smokers. But the House rather courageously included mint and menthol — something retailers have insisted will cut into their adult market.
And legislators upped the proposed excise tax on the wholesale price of the product to 75 percent, a figure favored by the advocacy group Tobacco Free Mass. Whatever the magic number, anything that makes teens think twice about how to spend their allowance money, or whether it’s worth two hours behind the counter at McDonald’s to buy a vape pen, is a good thing.
The bill has some real teeth on the enforcement side too, including fines and possible suspension of a convenience store’s lottery sales license if found to have sold to minors or violated the ban on selling flavored products. Retailers of vaping products will be subject to a whole new licensing procedure too.
Now, because the manufacturers of vaping products have often touted their value as a tool for adults wanting to kick the cigarette habit, the House bill also includes a mandate that insurers in the state cover — without a co-pay — smoking cessation products such as nicotine patches and gum as well as counseling.
Nothing in the House bill addresses marijuana vaping. There is a growing body of evidence that vitamin E acetate used as an additive in some marijuana vape products, both legal and illegal, may well be the source of the some of the illnesses. The state’s Cannabis Control Commission has ordered all oil-based vape products “quarantined” for the time being.
But the issues in nicotine vaping are surely worth tackling on their own. A product that was less expensive than cigarettes, mango flavored, and way easier to hide from mom and dad was a natural for the teen market. That’s the chain that cries out to be broken.
The House has taken the first step in doing that. Surely the health-minded Senate won’t be far behind.