Public health and social justice advocates are urging the Legislature to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol, saying the flavorings have long been used to hook children, especially in minority groups, on nicotine.
“It would be difficult to name another widely available commercial product that has caused more deadly harm to African Americans than menthol cigarettes,” Kaylin Kerina, a Portland resident who is Black, said in an online news conference put on by the Flavors Hook Kids Maine campaign Monday. “The continued appropriation of Black, Indigenous and people of color for the sale of tobacco must end.”
At least two bills pending in the Legislature would do just that, including measures offered by Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland.
Meyer said that as a mother and grandmother she felt compelled to sponsor legislation that could prevent children from becoming addicted to a product that will “rob them of a full and healthy life.”
The disproportionate use of tobacco products, especially menthol flavored ones, by people of color makes the matter a justice issue as well as a public health and consumer protection issue, she said.
In 2019, the Legislature passed a bill banning vaping products from public school grounds and Gov. Janet Mills committed $10 million from the state’s tobacco settlement fund to bolster youth smoking and vaping prevention efforts.
Mills plans to review the bill when it has been finalized, according to press secretary Lindsay Crete.
“We have not yet had the opportunity to review the bill, but generally the Governor is interested in working with the Legislature to explore strategies related to e-cigarette use that will protect the health and welfare of Maine’s youth,” Crete said.
But much of the focus on tobacco-use prevention was displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Jeffrey Stone, a Waterville pediatrician.
“As of this morning 636 people have died due to COVID in Maine alone, that’s horrible,” Stone said. “But how many people die from smoking-related deaths every year in the same time period?” Stone asked. “Not 636, four times that – 2,400 people. It’s just amazing how bad of a story smoking is but we are all focused on COVID.”
Stone said research shows menthol is used to make consuming tobacco easier to do.
“Menthol numbs the throat and masks the harsh taste of tobacco, making it easier to inhale, and inhale more deeply,” Stone said. “People who smoke menthol also show greater signs of nicotine addiction and are less likely to successfully quit smoking than other smokers.”
Only two states, Massachusetts and California, have completely banned all flavored tobacco products, while a handful of others have banned flavored vaping products only. Earlier this month the U.S. House also passed a bill that would place a federal ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol.
In 2019, Congress passed a law that raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. In 2020, the administration of former president Donald Trump issued rules that prohibit fruit, candy, mint and dessert flavors from small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes like Juul. The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, also passed a ban on flavored tobacco products in 2020, but the measure never cleared the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Flavors Hook Kids Maine campaign, which is pushing for passage of a flavored products ban, includes more than 24 partner organizations, such as the American Cancer Society Action Network, among others. If approved, the ban would affect thousands of products that critics say are flavored to appeal to youth or minority groups, including American Indians and members of the state’s LGBTQ community.
Hilary Schneider, government relations director at the society’s action network, said data shows four out of five children who use tobacco started with a flavored product.
“Tobacco companies have developed an array of menthol, mint and candy-flavored products because they know that’s how to addict their next generation of customers,” Schneider said.
Also attending the online news conference were young members of the Penobscot Nation.
“In our culture we use tobacco as a way to give thanks,” said Wabanaki Youth Council and Penobscot Nation member Eben Francis, 13. “It is sad to see something of cultural significance being used to exploit young people.”
Shane Diamond, who identifies as trans and queer, said the tobacco industry also targets the LGBTQ community with predatory advertising in magazines and sponsorships of local Pride events and celebrations.
He said studies show that LGBTQ adults smoke at rates 2.5 times higher than straight adults.
“The tobacco industry sold us on a feeling – a feeling of comfort, of connection, and often, of momentary escape,” said Diamond, who recently quit smoking.
The text of both bills is still being written and public hearings will be scheduled in the Legislature in the weeks ahead.
Scott Thistle/Press Herald