More than 100 cancer patients, survivors, and their family members fanned out across Beacon Hill on Thursday to push for a ban on all flavored tobacco products, including the nicotine liquid used in vaping, as well as steep new taxes on e-cigarettes.
“They are marketed and sold to our youth and our youth are getting sick and they have no idea what the consequences are,” Representative Danielle W. Gregoire, a Marlborough Democrat and the lead sponsor of the House measure that would ban flavored e-cigarettes, told the advocates before they set off on their lobbying blitz at the State House.
The measure has sparked opposition from brick-and-mortar retailers and manufacturers who say they support stopping underage use but argue a retail ban isn’t the solution.
The brewing legislative fight is unfolding against a backdrop of increased federal as well as local scrutiny of teen vaping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than 3.6 million young people nationwide use e-cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month unveiled a new proposal that would require stores that serve all ages to place flavored e-cigarettes in separate, age-restricted rooms.
In Massachusetts, a new law kicked in this year raising the legal age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. And in December, Somerville became the first municipality in the state to restrict such sales, banning e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes from the shelves of stores open to youths. The new rules take effect April 1.
The latest data show that in 2017, 25 percent of Massachusetts high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the last 30 days, and manufacturers use the sweet flavors to entice children to start using these highly addictive products, said Marc Hymovitz, director of government relations in Massachusetts for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, which organized the lobbying effort.
“It’s pretty clear that e-cigarettes have become an epidemic,” he said. “We had made such progress in reducing the number of kids smoking cigarettes, and now we’re starting to see a reversal in that trend because they’re getting hooked on e-cigarettes,” with some young people moving from vaping to smoking traditional cigarettes, said Hymovitz.
Specifically, his group and a long list of other public health advocates are backing legislation introduced in both the state House and Senate that would ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including the liquid used in e-cigarettes and other vaping devices, except in an approved smoking bar.
The prohibition would apply to all flavors, including menthol, mint, and wintergreen, which to date have often been exempted from flavor-related regulations on the grounds they are “adult” flavors. But menthol is the most popular flavor among young people, said Hymovitz.
In addition to the flavored e-cigarette ban, members of the antismoking coalition Tobacco Free Mass also support legislation that would extend the state’s excise tax to e-cigarettes, as well as boost existing taxes on cigarettes and cigars. The proposal would put a 75 percent excise tax on e-cigarettes, which supporters say would bring vaping-related taxes in line with those on regular cigarettes.
The measure would go further than the 40 percent excise tax on e-cigarettes that Governor Charlie Baker proposed as part of his state budget plan.
“We need revenue, but more importantly we need to continue saving lives,” said Representative Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat. Data show that “when you increases taxes on tobacco, you lower rates on new smokers coming in. It works.”
An aide to Decker said her proposal to increase the existing cigarette tax by $1 would raise $45 million to $50 million a year in revenue, while the new e-cigarette tax would raise $12 million to $15 million.
Massachusetts retailers are pushing back against the bills, and are adamant that the ban on flavored products is well intentioned but misguided.
“Retailers consider themselves part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, which represents convenience stores and gas stations. He cited FDA data that show retailers in Massachusetts have a 94 percent compliance rate with tobacco sales laws.
He said the evidence from various flavor bans at the city and town level — including in Somerville, which had a ban on certain flavors of e-cigarettes before expanding restrictions in December — show such restrictions are “wildly unsuccessful.”
Teens use of e-cigarettes has continued unabated, despite compliance rates showing retailers aren’t selling the products to them, he said.
“It doesn’t solve a really important problem, which is online access,” he said.
The bills before the Legislature are drawing attention from some heavy industry hitters, too. Reynolds American, one of the biggest US tobacco manufacturers, has the same concerns as FDA officials and public health advocates that “some vapor flavors, such as those resembling ‘kid friendly’ food products, may play a role in increasing youth appeal,” said a spokesperson for the company, which markets Vuse Alto brand e-cigarettes.
“We have never marketed such vapor flavors,” the spokesman said.
“Yet, excessive actions, such as prohibiting the sale of certain tobacco products, unfairly burden adult tobacco consumers and create illicit markets that hurt legitimate retailers.”