By Steph Solis | July 16, 2019 | Masslive.com
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called on state lawmakers to move forward with legislation that bans flavored tobacco products, including vapes, from retailers across the commonwealth.
“The research is clear: flavor in tobacco products increases their appeal to young people and promotes initiation,” Healey said during the Joint Committee on Public Health heading Tuesday afternoon. “The good news is we know what works. We’ve fought Big Tobacco before and won.”
Healey testified after teens and pediatricians who shared their concerns about flavor e-cigarettes and urged lawmakers to approve the bills S.1279 and H.1902. She was surrounded by ardent opponents of the proposed flavor ban: not representatives of JUUL and Eon Smoke, an e-cigarette company that’s being sued by Healey’s office, but the managers of convenience stores and gas stations who argue they cater to adults interested in flavored e-cigarettes, not minors.
“Limiting brick-and-mortar sellers of flavored tobacco dismantles retailers’ role as the state’s primary gatekeepers responsible for preventing youth access and the demand for these products will continue to migrate to the Internet and unregulated, untaxed illicit markets,” said Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association.
Surrounding him were dozens of retailers wearing white shirts with green print that says “I protect minors.” Shaer and Ari Haseotes, CEO of Cumberland Farms, argued that they were motivated to testify out of concern for teen e-cigarette users, not their profits. Instead, they advocated for stricter Internet verification laws for online e-cigarette sellers, statewide education programs and tough penalties for retailers caught selling to minors as alternatives to a flavor ban.
Citing drastic increases in teen vaping, lawmakers are seeking to curb e-cigarette use among minors by banning flavored tobacco and nicotine products across the state. If passed, such a ban would apply to online sellers as well as brick-and-mortar stores. The latest generations of e-cigarettes come with pods that contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes and lack the harsh aftertaste of its predecessors.
Congress passed a federal ban on flavored cigarettes in 2009, but the ban does not apply to e-cigarette products. Over the past decade, companies have released vape juices with higher concentrations of nicotine and flavors such as blueberry, mango and creme brûlée.
More than 150 municipal health boards have passed restrictions on flavored nicotine sales in Massachusetts, but students who already use e-cigarettes say they can easily drive 10 or 20 minutes to a town that doesn’t have a sales ban in place.
The companies have touted their products as a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes that could potentially help longtime smokers ween off of those products. Supporters swear by them as life-saving products.
Lawmakers, however, said retailers, vape shops and online sellers play the blame game with one another when accused of selling vapes and pods to minors. Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, argued that a flavor ban would prevent any of them from selling flavored e-cigarette products.
“They’re all fighting amongst themselves. They’re all blaming each other, and meanwhile our kids are getting addicted,” said Keenan, a sponsor of the legislation. “The best way to solve that, so that they don’t have the ability to point fingers at everybody else, is a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products, online, in vape shops, in retail shops, across the board.”
Pediatricians testifying before the committee Tuesday afternoon reported seeing higher numbers of teenagers seeking treatment for nicotine addiction. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Mass General Hospital, said he has seen student athletes who could no longer play a full game without losing their breath after chronic e-cigarette use.
A group of high schoolers and college students shared their accounts of seeing or using e-cigarette products, comparing the trend to the rise of teen smoking cigarettes generations earlier.
“Right now, I go to a school where I have heard that it’s easier to get a JUUL pod than a pencil,” said Rachel Cohan, an incoming senior at Holbrook Middle High School. “I also go to a school where bathroom doors were taken off because people were vaping too much. To say vaping is not an epidemic among youth is deluded.”
Sanjay Patel of ARCK Enterprises said he understands the dangers of teen nicotine addiction; he has a 19-year-old daughter. He said a flavor ban would only hurt his business without addressing the larger concerns of e-cigarette use among teens.
“This bill [will] do nothing to actually prevent minors from obtaining and using e-cigarettes,” Patel said. “They simply deny everyone’s right to buy [a] legal product and deny my licensed right to sell it to my adults.”
As attorney general, Healey has taken on the vaping industry. Her office filed a lawsuit against Eon Smoke, a New Jersey-based e-cigarette company that used social media marketing to market its products to young consumers. She has toured school districts and heard from students who say they or their friends use e-cigarette products.
“Tobacco companies have designed and marketed these products to get another generation of young people hooked on nicotine, and we must do all we can to stop them,” Healey said.
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