Effort to ban flavored tobacco products in Maine builds momentum
Mar. 17—A proposal to ban all flavored tobacco products in Maine is gaining momentum, with key Democratic lawmakers and some Republican lawmakers lining up behind the bill.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, is supported by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson. It was printed on Friday, revealing details of the proposal for the first time. Committee meetings and public hearings will be scheduled in the coming weeks.
The measure would ban the use of flavors in all tobacco products sold in Maine, including vaping tobacco. The ban would include menthol as well as less traditional tobacco flavors such as mint, fruit, chocolate, vanilla and honey. The federal government currently bans flavors — except for menthol — in combustible cigarettes, but allows them in vaping products.
Bill supporters say that the flavors are added to the products to attract teens and get them hooked on nicotine, even though the vaping products are illegal for those under 21 to purchase. Opponents say it would simply drive people out of state to buy flavored tobacco, which they argue should be available to adults who turn to vaping as a way to quit smoking.
State Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, is one of the co-sponsors of the bill and said momentum is building this year after similar efforts failed in 2021 and 2022.
"I really hope we can finally get this done," Millett said. "This is a serious public health issue, especially for our kids. The companies that make these products will use any strategy to make the experience of using the products as pleasant and enjoyable as possible, and meanwhile they are poisoning them."
Portland, South Portland, Bangor, Brunswick and Bar Harbor already have approved municipal bans on the sale of flavored tobacco.
If the legislative effort is successful, Maine would join a handful of other states with bans.
Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, Maryland and Utah have bans or some restrictions on the sale of flavored vaping products. Massachusetts and California have the most complete bans — prohibiting all sales of flavors and menthol in all tobacco products, including cigarettes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Dan Cashman, spokesman for Flavors Hook Kids Maine, a grassroots coalition that is lobbying for the statewide ban and has advocated for the municipal bans, believes the bill has a good chance of passing this year. In addition to Democratic support, the bill has two Republican co-sponsors, state Rep. Scott Cyrway, R-Albion, and Tammy Schmersal-Burgess, R-Mexico.
Democrats have majorities in the Senate and House and could pass a bill without Republicans, but only if there is limited opposition from within their party.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has yet to publicly take a position on the bill.
"The governor remains supportive of efforts to reduce tobacco use among Maine youth, and looks forward to reviewing Sen. Duson's legislation," Ben Goodman, a Mills spokesman, said in a written statement on Friday.
Retailers that sell the products would be fined $1,000 for the first violation and $5,000 for subsequent violations.
Jacob Posik, spokesman for the Maine Policy Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said that banning flavored products will create a black market in Maine, and also encourage people to purchase them in New Hampshire, where they remain legal.
A report put out this year by Massachusetts shows that tax revenue from the sale of vaping products was cut nearly in half after that state's ban went into effect, dropping from $21.6 million in 2020 to $12.3 million in both 2021 and 2022. While the report doesn't detail the precise reasons for the reduction in revenue, Posik said many Massachusetts residents went to New Hampshire to purchase flavored vaping products.
"Prohibition does not work, and there's plenty of evidence that it doesn't work," Posik said. "Students might not be vaping cotton candy e-cigarettes, but what they would end up doing is smoking traditional cigarettes."
Posik said adults use the vaping products to help them quit combustible cigarettes, and a ban on flavors removes choices for adults trying to wean themselves off of nicotine.
But Cashman said without flavors readily available for teens to try, many will be prevented from using them in the first place.
Vaping has skyrocketed among high school students in recent years, nearly doubling from 16.8% in 2015 to 30.2% in 2019, according to surveys. Students will take the survey again this year, the first year high school students will be measured on substance use and a number of other categories since pandemic restrictions that stunted typical gatherings were lifted. Cigarette use continues a long-term decline, from 16.2% in 2005 to 6.8% in 2019.
"The goal is to get youth to not try (nicotine products), and if we don't put these products in front of them, they are less likely to try them," Cashman said. "The ultimate goal is to stop youth from getting addicted, which is happening every day they remain on the shelves."