Massachusetts on Wednesday became the first state in the country to prohibit the retail sale of menthol cigarettes, as Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill that bans all flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-cigarettes.
Baker also announced Wednesday that the state's temporary ban on all vaping product sales will now end on Dec. 11, when public health officials are set to adopt a new set of permanent vaping regulations. The sale of flavored tobacco vaping products will still be prohibited on that date under the new law.
Pitched as a way to help protect children from the dangers of nicotine addiction but criticized by adult e-cigarette users, retailers and lawmakers from border communities, the legislation also imposes a 75% excise tax on vaping products.
The new law's ban on flavored vaping products takes effect immediately, and the prohibition on selling other flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, becomes effective next June. Flavored tobacco will not entirely be forbidden in Massachusetts; it will be allowed for sale exclusively for on-site consumption at licensed smoking bars.
Vaping companies and convenience store owners had urged Baker to veto the ban instead, warning it could hurt small businesses and won't be effective in curbing nicotine use among teenagers.
Vaping industry advocates say the bill will have "significant public health and economic consequences" by driving people to unregulated markets, if not back to smoking traditional cigarettes, while shutting down small businesses.
"Bans don’t work; they never have," said Tony Abboud, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Vapor Technology Association. "And, in fact, this ban will drive many of Massachusetts’ citizens back to combustible cigarettes, the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States."
Meanwhile, convenience stores owners say the permanent restrictions will hurt bottom lines and drive consumers to New Hampshire and other states where the products are legal.
"Banning a product that is legal in 49 other states will not stop people from purchasing menthol, but turn them into criminals," said Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association. "The demand will not disappear because the state bans or restricts these products. It will simply find another market."
Lawmakers who voted for the bill argue the tough rules are needed to curb teen vaping and reduce the state's rising health care costs for treating lung disease. They also cited concerns about a nationwide vaping-related illness that has sickened nearly 2,400 people and killed 47, including three people in Massachusetts.
The flavor ban is backed by major public health organizations such as the Massachusetts Medical Society and American Cancer Society, amid concerns that a generation of teenagers are getting hooked on nicotine-laden e-cigarettes with flavors such as bubble gum, mint and mango.
Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, urged Baker to sign the bill, saying it will "raise the bar for tobacco control across the country."
"Clearing the market of all flavored tobacco products is critical to addressing the youth e-cigarette epidemic, just as increasing funding of tobacco cessation and prevention programs, and increasing taxes for vape products are proven effective tools in reducing tobacco use for all ages," Wimmer said in statement.
The sale of menthol cigarettes has a racial dynamic, with social justice groups accusing tobacco companies of intentionally marketing the products to minorities.
Beyond the concerns about the impact of a permanent ban on businesses, opponents of the restrictions say they will unfairly punish users who cross state lines to buy the products. Under the ban, anyone caught bringing untaxed vaping products into the state could be fined $5,000 for a first offense and up to $25,000 for multiple violations. The provisions also allow police to seize un-taxed vaping products as well as a cars, boats or airplanes in which they're transported.
The Baker administration has been fighting in court to protect an emergency, four-month ban on all vaping products. Baker declared a public health emergency and imposed the temporary ban on Sept. 24, in response to the outbreak of lung disease.
The ban has been challenged by vape companies, and Baker was ordered by a Suffolk Superior Court judge to file emergency regulations in order to keep the restrictions in place until Dec. 24, narrowing the window of his ban by a month.
The legal challenge was being reviewed by the state's Supreme Judicial Court, which was expected to hear oral arguments on Dec. 9. Now, Baker says he will lift the temporary ban on product sales on Dec. 11, as health officials adopt new regulations.
Even before the ban, the Baker administration was tightening restrictions on e-cigarettes in response to concerns about use among young people. Last year, the state raised the legal age to buy e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, expanded the workplace smoking ban to include e-cigarettes, and barred pharmacies from selling them.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com. Material from the State House News Service was used in this report.