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Vermont Legislature considers banning flavored vape products, menthol

Published: 2/25/2021 10:02:11 PM
Modified: 2/25/2021 10:16:14 PM

The Vermont Senate has revived legislation that would ban the sale of flavored vaping and tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.

The ban was floated last year as a way to prevent youth use of nicotine products, but the proposal was sidelined after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, said in an interview this week that she’d like the Senate to pass the bill, SB 24, “as quickly as possible.” She said use of nicotine products by young people has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State economists have also reported a surge in revenue from the sales of tobacco products and e-cigarettes, and more young people have been using cigarettes and vapes, according to the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health.

“During the pandemic, we’ve seen a real fallback from all the progress we’ve made on limiting youth access to tobacco and other flavored products, so it seems more important than ever to move forward with this bill,” Lyons said.

She said it’s important to ban both menthol and flavored vaping products to help reduce use.

“If we were only to eliminate all the other flavors and leave menthol on the market, we would see a transition of people to those menthol products, and we would be backsliding again,” Lyons.

Advocates and public health experts also say menthol cigarettes have been marketed to minority communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tobacco industry has “aggressively marketed menthol products to young people and African Americans.”

Dr. Phillip Gardiner — who is co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and has published research on menthol cigarettes — told the Senate health committee last week that menthol “was pushed down the throat” of Black communities over the last 60 years, and has become much more popular among Black smokers over time.

“Where did that come from? They were cheaper in our community, there’s more advertising in our community, there’s greater promotion in our community,” Gardiner said.

Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, told the Senate committee Wednesday that 90% of Black people who smoke report using menthol cigarettes.

Levine said that a ban on flavored nicotine products is a “recognized strategy” to reduce use among young people and address health equity issues.

But he said he would prefer a federal ban on the products.

“We shouldn’t have to go state by state and sort of chip away at this,” Levine said. “The bottom line is that would be the preferred way. It would take care of the border state issues, it would take care of a lot of things, and it would send a clear message to the populations of color in this country that people actually care about them, and they’ve actually been thoughtful about these issues in that context.

“It’s so easy for Vermont to stand out on all of these things and be the pioneer and the leader and what have you, but probably in the big picture, we really do need to have this on a federal level,” Levine said.

The federal government moved to ban most e-cigarette flavors last year but left menthol vapes on the market.

If Vermont approved a ban on flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes, it would be the third state to do so. Massachusetts banned flavored vapes and tobacco products in 2019, and California followed suit last year.

However, California’s law was blocked after the tobacco industry moved successfully to have voters decide on the ban in a statewide referendum next year.

Some people raised concerns about the ban with state legislators on Wednesday.

Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, said her organization opposes the legislation because of the financial impact it would have on businesses and on state revenues.

She said small Vermont retailers estimate they would each lose $35,000 to $45,000 a year because of the ban, and one Vermont-based convenience-store chain with about a dozen locations says it would lose $500,000 in sales.

Sigrist said it’s “a bit disingenuous to assume that, by banning these products, people will quit” noting that sales of flavored tobacco products surged in Vermont and New Hampshire after Massachusetts banned them last year.

“Prohibition of alcohol and cannabis has failed to keep these products out of the hands of underage consumers,” Sigrist said. “And if these bans haven’t worked in anything else, why are we thinking that banning flavored tobacco within the political borders of Vermont” will do what it’s intended to do.

The Joint Fiscal Office estimates the ban would cut state revenues by $5.64 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $6.5 million in the fiscal year 2024.

Supporters of the bill say health care costs stemming from tobacco use also lead to more expenses for the state. The legislation estimates Vermont spends $350 million per year to treat tobacco-related illnesses.

Gov. Phil Scott has already signaled he would back a ban on flavored vaping products, but it’s unclear if he would support a prohibition on menthol cigarettes.

Scott’s press secretary, Jason Maulucci, said the governor is “generally supportive of a flavored e-cigarette ban, particularly fruity and candy-flavored products.” But he said Scott “wants to ensure all impacts of a potential menthol ban are evaluated, specifically ensuring that it wouldn’t do more harm than good by driving those seeking to quit back to harmful combustible tobacco products.”

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Committee on Human Services, said she plans on taking up the bill when it comes over from the Senate and she generally supports the proposal.

“The pandemic has only on some level, as with so many other issues, pointed out the work that we need to do, and how detrimental the health conditions that are an outgrowth of any kind of tobacco use is on people’s susceptibility to disease, including the pandemic,” Pugh said.

“The tobacco industry targets youth with flavored tobacco,” she said. “And vaping is insidious.”

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