Massachusetts senator pushes state government to ban flavored nicotine products

Over 150 cancer patients, volunteers, and lawmakers rallied in the Massachusetts State House on March 28 to lobby for multiple anti-tobacco bills going through the legislative process in the state government.

American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, or ACS CAN, organized the rally to support legislation that bans flavored tobacco and vape products in Massachusetts retail stores, and a bill that raises taxes on the same products.

Sen. John Keenan, D-Norfolk and Plymouth, sponsored the proposal banning the sale of flavored tobacco and vape products and said he filed the bill with the public health committee where it still needs reviewal. The ban would prohibit the sale of flavors such as mint, menthol, and mango.

In an interview with the Beacon, the senator said he proposed the measure after hearing alarming stories about children getting addicted to nicotine through vape products.

“Kids are being sold this product with the idea that it tastes like candy or mint and they have no idea how much nicotine [is] in these products,” Keenan said. “They get a false sense that they’re not dangerous. It’s not smoking, so how bad can it be?”

Keenan said he partnered with ACS CAN to work on the legislation because he wished lawmakers made nicotine addiction a bigger priority for his generation.

“We have an obligation to our kids,” he said in his speech at the rally. “It’s time we say to the big tobacco industry, the nicotine industry, ‘You are not going to take another generation. We are going to fight you every step of the way.’”

The tax legislation would increase the cigarette tax by $1, the cigar tax by 40 percent, and create a 70 percent tax on vape paraphernalia, Marc Hymovitz, director of government relations for ACS CAN in Massachusetts, said in an interview with the Beacon.

“There are decades of evidence to show that one of the most effective ways to get folks to quit using tobacco and prevent kids from starting is to increase the price,” he said.

Raising the price of tobacco products along with other prevention strategies—like media campaigns and school programs—can cut underage smoking in half in six years, according to the Surgeon General’s website.

Vice President and Dean of Campus Life James Hoppe said the college can only estimate how many students smoke and vape from previously conducted surveys. The American College Health Survey in 2015 found that 11 percent of students at Emerson smoked in the past 30 days while the Healthy Minds study in 2019 found that 15 percent of students at the college smoked in the past 30 days.

Hoppe said the college did not have any concrete numbers of students who vape but the Center for Health and Wellness estimates that 20 percent of the students they treat vape regularly. He said he has heard some concern from students about smokers standing outside of college buildings.

“The debate was so very mixed,” Hoppe said in an interview. “Some had a big problem with smokers standing right outside [the Walker Building] and others said it was their right to choose to smoke. So, I don’t think a resolution was ever reached.”

The college does not allow students to smoke in any campus buildings but sidewalks are owned by the City of Boston, which is why students frequently smoke there.

Sophomore Sean Cuddihy, 20, said he thinks students at Emerson smoke and vape more than students at other colleges but the government should not restrict what consumers can or cannot buy.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ban stuff that people want to do,” Cuddihy said in an interview. “I think there should be more regulation on who can buy and sell things like that. I think the problem is that the people who are selling these products don’t really care who they’re selling them to.”

In Massachusetts, 140 cities and towns—including Boston—already regulate or ban flavored tobacco products, according to Tobacco Free Mass. Boston’s regulations ban flavored products other than menthol in every store except dedicated smoking shops.

Keenan said it made more sense to make the flavor ban a state law because it would close the gaps of any townships that refused to take action.

Stewart said the bill banning flavored nicotine products is one of the first of its kind in the nation and might help other states pass similar laws.

“Everyone’s kind of playing chicken here. No one wants to be the first one but once one state does it, then it’s possible to study it, see what the effects are,” she said. “Massachusetts has been a leader in this area, and I would love to see us continue that.”

Bridgewater resident Patti Morris, 50, has 29 family members who have been diagnosed with cancer. Doctors diagnosed her mother, brother, step-mother, and step-sister with cancer from tobacco use. Morris’ brother is the only one still alive.

Morris said in an interview with the Beacon that she joined ACS CAN in 2004 and helps them lobby for anti-tobacco and nicotine bills.

“I tried to explain to my eight-year-old grandson why Juuls were so bad and his response was, ‘It has to be good for me because it smells good,’” she said in her speech at the rally.

Morris said the marketing and branding techniques used by tobacco and vape companies appall her, and said she thought it was important to share her story with lawmakers.  

“I love being able to share my story,” she said. “It’s so important because I have lost far too many family members and friends that now don’t have a voice. So I have to use mine to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Chris Van Buskirk contributed reporting to this article.

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