Inclusion of Menthol Seen as Key to Successful Flavored Tobacco Ban
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — As it becomes increasingly likely that the Legislature will seek to put some guardrails on vaping in the coming month, public health advocates on Monday called on lawmakers to ban flavors, including menthol, from all tobacco products that are vaped or smoked.
The leaders of both branches have expressed a desire to address vaping in order to have a more substantial regulatory structure in place when Gov. Charlie Baker's three-month ban on vaping sales ends in December. The issue has attracted significant attention amid a nationwide outbreak of still-unexplained lung illnesses,
But they were less clear Monday about their feelings towards mentholated products.
Legislation (H 4089/S 2357) based on a bill originally filed by Sen. John Keenan of Quincy and Rep. Danielle Gregoire of Marlborough to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products in Massachusetts is pending before each branch's Ways and Means Committee.
A group of advocates that included representatives from the Massachusetts Medical Society, Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, Massachusetts Association of Health Plans and the Massachusetts Health Council urged lawmakers to pass the Keenan-Gregoire legislation as written.
"There are too many stores selling tobacco products, too many stores advertising tobacco products and the most popular, menthol products," said Cynthia Loesch-Johnson, from the Codman Square Neighborhood Council.
Loesch-Johnson compared the way minty and fruity flavors attract teens to e-cigarettes to the way menthol attracts young people to standard paper cigarettes. "The minty, fresh flavor of menthol is very effective in getting kids to start using tobacco products," she said.
The federal government banned all flavors of cigarettes except mint and menthol in 2009. The Keenan-Gregoire legislation would also a ban menthol and mint-flavored cigarettes, which the advocates argued Monday would be a critical component if legislation is to be successful.
"Do not make the mistake of banning flavors only in e-cigarettes and not combustibles. This will only cause kids to turn from vaping to smoking," Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said. She added that the flavor ban bill would not be nearly as effective without including menthol.
Tobacco Free Mass Chair Dr. Lauren Smith said last week that a menthol prohibition is particularly important because menthol is "not just a taste."
"It has a physiologic effect on your throat and your breathing passages so that it numbs it a bit and makes it easier to take deep inhalations, so it makes it less harsh," she said. "For folks who are trying cigarettes for the first time, it's often a pretty unpleasant experience, but menthol takes the edge off of that so it's easier to get started and it's also much harder to quit."
Asked about the issue of mentholated cigarettes Monday afternoon following a semi-regular meeting together, Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker avoided taking a position one way or the other.
"I'm in the process of talking with the chairs involved in this -- from public health and health care finance -- and I know Senator Keenan has a bill, so we are actively working on this and taking a look at that," Spilka said.
DeLeo agreed with Spilka and noted that "most of the discussion so far has really involved more candy-type flavors because most of the discussion has been especially relative to the children and vaping products."
"I think we've got to take a look at in terms of whether menthol would fall into that so-called flavor situation as well and whether we should take it a step further," DeLeo said. He added, "So I think now that becomes an issue that we have to take a look at, and right now in the Ways and Means Committee we have a vaping bill right now there so we'll see how that comes out."
Baker, whose administration had to curtail a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products to keep it alive, backed the idea of banning flavored e-cigarettes, but did not directly answer when asked if he considers menthol a flavor.
"I think as far as the conversation is taking place with respect to vaping, certainly all the issues associated with bubble gum, strawberry, raspberry all that sort of thing, those are certainly flavors that need to be taken out of the mix," he said. "But again, I want to collect some more data from the DPH and the CDC on this stuff that we can get the appropriate regulatory framework in place around vaping."
DeLeo raised an issue that Jason Boyd of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation highlighted at Monday's press conference. Boyd said the tobacco industry has targeted African-Americans with menthol cigarette marketing.
"Menthol ... has an issue not only as children, but there's a racial issue to it as well," DeLeo said Monday afternoon.
At the press conference Monday, Boyd said any legislation that seeks to deal with vaping and smoking but does not prohibit menthol would be inadequate.
"By excluding menthols, the state would be [saying] it's OK to target a particular community," he said.
The timing for the House or Senate to take up a vaping bill remains a bit murky, though DeLeo said last week that he hopes the House will "have a more comprehensive discussion going beyond the ban in terms of what the law's actually going to be in the future" before the Legislature recesses for the year on Nov. 20.
Spilka said last week that her chamber is "looking also at a vaping bill" and "we need to take some action to have something in place, sooner rather than later."
— Colin A. Young, State House News Service