(TNS) — The Massachusetts Senate Wednesday night passed a bill banning all flavored tobacco products, including mint and menthol, and imposing a 75% excise tax on e-cigarettes.
The bill, if signed into law, would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes.
It is part of a policy intended to crack down on youth vaping and smoking.
“For far too long, tobacco companies have preyed upon these young people,” said Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, who sponsored the bill. “Their business model is simple, create lifelong customers by getting them hooked.”
The Senate vote was 32-6.
The House voted to approve a similar ban last week.
As of 10 p.m., it was not clear whether the House and Senate would be able to work out their differences Wednesday night and send the bill to Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican. Lawmakers do not plan to return to formal sessions until January.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said earlier in the day that he hoped any minor differences could be worked out Wednesday.
The ban on flavored e-cigarettes would go into effect immediately. Baker has temporarily banned the sale of all vaping products amid a national outbreak of vaping-related illnesses. That ban is set to expire Dec. 24, barring additional court action. If Baker signs the bill into law, flavored e-cigarettes would never again be allowed to be sold in Massachusetts.
Insurers would have to cover smoking cessation counseling and products.
The ban on other flavored tobacco products – menthol and mint cigarettes, cigars and chew – would not go into effect until June 1, 2020. The tax on e-cigarettes would also be effective June 1.
While there is widespread agreement among state policymakers about banning flavored vaping products, the menthol cigarette ban has been controversial.
Sen. Don Humason, R-Westfield, introduced an amendment that would have exempted menthol from the ban.
“I personally hate smoking. I’ve never tried cigarettes or vaping or even pot. But that was my choice as an adult,” Humason said. “I’ve had the freedom to make that decision, and I fear this bill is unfortunately too far-reaching.”
Humason said if an 18-year-old can vote for mayor, senator or president, “You are certainly smart enough to make up your mind for yourself.”
But Keenan said menthol is a flavor that has been used to attract new smokers. “It’s been effective because menthol has the ability to make the intake of chemicals and nicotine smoother,” Keenan said. “It also allows people to take nicotine in more frequently.”
Although the federal government outlawed flavored cigarettes in 2009, it continued to allow mint and menthol. Keenan said while youth use of cigarettes declined after 2009, the number of young people using menthol cigarettes increased. Keenan said the tobacco industry wants to keep menthol legal to keep young people hooked on nicotine – and to get them to switch from vaping flavors to smoking menthol cigarettes.
“They know if we ban flavors on just the vaping side, they have a ready market,” Keenan said.
Humason’s amendment failed, 11-27, with one abstention. Republicans and Democrats voted on both sides of the issue.
Lawmakers have touted the ban on flavored products as a way to stop teenagers from vaping – which has become so common in some schools that bathrooms are colloquially referred to as “Juul rooms.” According to a state survey, 20% of Massachusetts high schoolers in 2017 said they currently vaped.
Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, compared marketing campaigns around e-cigarettes today to efforts to promote smoking in the 1940s, when tobacco companies paid moviemakers and celebrities to promote cigarette use.
“Big tobacco always finds ways to find new victims,” Chandler said. “E-cigarettes are sleek, they feel good, now they even taste good and they are highly, highly addictive.”
Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, said tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in Massachusetts, and costs the state an estimated $4 billion a year in health care cost. Nicotine in teenagers, he said, impacts the brain and can cause anxiety, depression and mood disorders.
Several lawmakers noted that Massachusetts does not know the fiscal impact of the bill – for example, on cigarette excise tax collections.
While Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he would not trade public health benefits for state revenue, Tarr said, “We’re going forward with a bill for which we have no appreciation of the cost to the commonwealth in lost revenue.”
The New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association has led the opposition to the menthol cigarette ban.
In a letter to senators, the association wrote that the consequences of the ban include “racial inequity, public safety, public health, black market activity, tax losses and job losses.” They said the ban on mint and menthol cigarettes is not directed at children but at telling adults “they are not smart enough to choose for themselves.”
But public health groups – including the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association – say flavored tobacco, including menthol, has been used by the industry to lure kids into smoking. “Long before cigarette companies started adding fruit, candy, and alcohol flavorings to cigarettes, they were adding menthol to addict new, young smokers,” the groups wrote in a letter to Senate President Karen Spilka, D-Ashland.
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