BEACON HILL—The House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday banning the sale of all flavored tobacco and vaping products in the Commonwealth.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Danielle Gregoire in January, expands existing bans on flavored tobacco to encompass flavored vaping products and closes a loophole that exempted the sale of menthol-flavored tobacco products. The bill, which passed on a vote of 126-31, also introduces a sales tax on vaping devices, whether they’re single-use or reloadable. If the Senate concurs with the House, Gov. Charlie Baker will have to sign it into law before the ban takes effect.
Baker recently placed a four-month ban on all vaping product sales in the state in response to a number of related health issues across the nation. His executive order will expire in December, and proponents on both sides of the issue are battling it out in this new wave of legislation aimed at dealing with the public health crisis. If the Senate concurs with the House, Baker will have to sign it into law before the ban takes effect.
The House session convened in the wake of a slew of protests and rallies in the past few weeks arguing both sides of the bill. Opponents, including the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association and the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, reported over 100 members at a protest against the ban on Nov. 6.
NECSEMA argued that the ban will hurt small business owners and is an infringement on adults’ ability to make their own decisions. Executive Director Jon Shaer said he hopes that legislators will find effective ways to regulate products without a ban.
“There is no question there’s a youth vaping problem, and there’s no question flavors drive youth appeal, but prohibition doesn’t work,” Shaer said in a phone interview.
The House session opened with proponents for and against the bill measuring the impact of the legislation.
Representatives opposed to the ban spoke about the financial risks disproportionately hurting small businesses in cities and towns close to the New Hampshire border. They argued that the prohibition of sales in Massachusetts would increase the number of people already crossing the border to purchase untaxed cigarettes. Rep. Susannah Whipps added that people who go to New Hampshire for their cigarettes might also pick up alcohol and fill up their tank on the way home.
“There is going to be a loss of revenue with this bill being passed,” Rep. Bradford Hill, the assistant House minority leader, said. “What would we lose? What will we gain? We need that information.”
Of 15 amendments introduced, four passed. The first diverts 30 percent of the revenues from sales tax on vaping products to a trust fund set up to combat substance abuse. Two others restrict the exempted sale and use of flavored tobacco to licensed establishments like hookah bars and block EBT from being used to buy vape products. The final amendment changes the nicotine limit allowed in products.
Dozens of students from the Boston area convened at the State House Tuesday in support of the bill. The students recounted the rising statistics of a new wave of nicotine-addicted teenagers falling victim to colorful advertising, ease of access, and lack of education among teachers and parents.
“Our generation was targeted by an industry that doesn’t care about us, but we, standing here today, care about who’s coming next,” Sarah Ryan, a Boston College student, said during the rally.
Sen. John Keenan, who introduced similar legislation in the senate, learned about the trend from his children who told him about the rapidly growing popularity of vaping in schools. He called out the vaping industry for preying on kids who don’t understand the health risks of their products.
“We know, from talking to young people and from science that’s out there, that flavors are used to target young people,” Keenan said in an interview. “So if we can ban flavors across the board for cigarettes and e-cigarettes, we will prevent the industry from targeting the next generation,”
Students and teachers from John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science showed up at the rally Tuesday in support of the ban. Jamiyah Reed said she got involved in pushing the legislation because she feels African Americans were specifically targeted by the menthol exemption.
“Menthol products, the way that they’re advertised, they’re advertised to be targeted towards the black community, especially teenagers,” Reed said. “So that’s why I support [the bill].”
According to representatives of the Cancer Action Network and the American Heart Association, the majority of youths smoking cigarettes is smoking menthols. They pointed out that physicians see that number rising since Governor Baker’s vape ban came into place.
“We’ve been trying to get the governor, and he has been very receptive, to look at the targeting of young people, the targeting of a generation,” Keenan, who is hopeful they get the ban passed soon, said. “The governor’s always stood up for kids, so we hope, we trust, and we expect he will stand with kids now.”