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‘They’ve blurred the lines’: Local retailers urge officials not to ban flavored tobacco products because of vaping illnesses

Members of the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association and the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association gathered for a rally at City Hall Plaza in Boston on Wednesday.
Members of the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association and the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association gathered for a rally at City Hall Plaza in Boston on Wednesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Amid the onslaught of illnesses that has inspired many states to ban flavored vapes, convenience store owners across Massachusetts are pleading with local officials to not treat proposed bans on flavored cigarettes as part of the same epidemic.

A bill proposed in the Massachusetts House would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including flavored nicotine electronic cigarettes that are believed to be partially at fault for an outbreak of illnesses caused by vaping nationwide. The only exception to the ban would be for “smoking bars.”

Massachusetts convenience store owners and those in the tobacco industry say they’re being lumped in with the ongoing vaping crisis.

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“They’ve blurred the lines,” said Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association. “They’ve conflated the situation.”

Some of the people who would be affected by the proposed legislation gathered for a rally on Boston City Hall Plaza on Wednesday, urging state and local leaders not to include cigarettes in the flavored product ban. The rally, hosted by Shaer’s group, as well as the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association, called for “sensible tobacco regulations,” organizers said.

The Boston Public Health Commission has also proposed a change to mint and menthol nicotine and tobacco products, recommending that they be sold only in adult-only tobacco shops, rather than in the slew of convenience stores that can sell them now.

Organizers said that if the sale of flavored cigarettes is limited, many convenience stores probably won’t make enough revenue to stay open. And some of the stores that close will ultimately affect people in underserved communities who rely on them, said Rich Marianos, a former assistant director of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who is now a consultant for a tobacco company.

“Take a look at the single mother who doesn’t have transportation, lives in a neighborhood that relies on one of these markets, and now you take that away because 85 percent of their business model is cigarettes, lottery, [and] snacks,” he said. “Now they have to shut down. Where does she go for her food?”

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Many state and local leaders have cited the increasing number of vaping illness reports as evidence that these bans are necessary. As of Thursday, nearly 1,900 vaping illnesses have been reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency said, and two people in Massachusetts have died, both of whom reportedly vaped nicotine.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement announcing the city’s proposal: “Teen vaping is an epidemic that is particularly alarming because we know that nicotine use at a young age can have the power to lead to a lifelong dependency. The data is undeniable in showing that these amendments would save lives.”

But, the convenience store owners said, mitigating the youth vaping crisis should not come at the cost of the non-vaping products that convenience stores sell. The owners argue that their flavored cigarettes are simply different products altogether and are being unfairly targeted.

“We don’t need to ban anything, but we certainly don’t need to ban menthol cigarettes,” Shaer said. “It has nothing to do with the issue, rates are at an all-time low, and the public safety implications are frightening.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.

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