Rural Lawmakers Challenge New Push to Ban Flavored Tobacco in Maine

Rural Lawmakers Challenge New Push to Ban Flavored Tobacco in Maine

Menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products are displayed at a store in San Francisco on May 17, 2018. Credit: Jeff Chiu / AP

A bill that would ban flavored tobacco products in Maine has momentum after bans in four large communities, but a skeptical group of rural lawmakers may stand in the way of passage.

Backers say the evidence is clear that younger Mainers are being hooked too early on such flavored products, a pathway that often leads to an addiction to cigarettes. If it does pass, it would represent a victory for the anti-tobacco, health care and dental organizations that waged hard-fought battles for municipal bans in the hopes a statewide ban would follow.

Sales are either restricted or on track to be in Portland, Bangor, South Portland and Brunswick. The last statewide ban was tried in 2021, but legislative Republicans struck it at the last minute from a consensus budget deal while citing concerns that business would simply shift to New Hampshire. They and rural Democrats may be obstacles, but supporters are bullish.

“Momentum is growing, and I think other communities are considering it,” said Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, who introduced the bill last month. “But I think the most important avenue to getting these products off the market is for there to be a statewide end to the sale of flavored products.”

This trajectory made Robert DiPietrantonio, co-owner of Three D’s Variety convenience store in downtown Biddeford, fatalistic about the bill’s passage. DiPietrantonio testified against a ban last session, saying such products make up 15 to 20 percent of his store’s sales. He said he hadn’t contacted his local representatives, but he doubted even that would do much.

“It has already passed in four towns,” DiPietrantonio said. “It’ll go through, I’m sure.”

Besides citing the adverse effects of nicotine product use by both children and adults that outpaces the rest of the region, many in the Legislature have personal experiences that have marked their support for a ban.

That includes Duson, who is the only one among five siblings who didn’t become a smoker in their teens. She continues to watch three sisters struggle to quit. Rep. Kevin O’Connell, D-Brewer, said he would be representing the people of his community with a likely vote for a ban, but he has a connection to smoking as well.

“I lost both my parents and brother because of tobacco,” O’Connell said. “When you get tobacco flavored [like] cotton candy, it’s obviously targeting a younger audience.”

Also a potential factor is location: Rep. Daniel Hobbs, D-Wells, said a ban was a no-brainer for him, as he had read about the harmful effects of flavored tobacco during his previous term in the House. Residents of his district can still get their menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco by taking a short drive to Somersworth, New Hampshire, he pointed out.

That happened in Massachusetts, with cigarette tax revenues soaring in New Hampshire after the Bay State became the first state to ban flavored tobacco products in 2020. Conservative criticisms of proposed bans in Maine, including one in the libertarian Reason magazine, have pointed to that. California also bans flavored e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes.

If a ban were to pass, losing the most access would be Mainers beyond southern and western Maine, including the Augusta and Bangor metros and Aroostook County, especially since neighboring New Brunswick has also banned flavored tobacco sales.

Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, who co-chairs the Legislature’s health insurance committee, said she worries about a black market with a ban on menthol cigarettes, which is one of the reasons she would not support the bill if a vote was held today.

“How much can you deny and not create a black market that goes beyond it, that gets out of your control?” Perry asked. “That’s why marijuana was legalized — maybe we could have better control if we could regulate it.”

If there is going to be a ban, it should be federal, said Perry, noting that the FDA is already taking steps in that direction, including new rules that would ban menthol cigarettes in April.

Some other Maine lawmakers have either not made up their mind or didn’t want to go public about it. Rep. Ronald Russell, D-Bucksport, said he had committed to supporting a flavored tobacco ban during the campaign but had a little bit more trouble on menthol cigarettes.

Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, said he was undecided and reflects many Mainers in having complex feelings on the subject. He also has three young children whom he hopes never gets addicted to nicotine.

“I’m concerned about adult users that can no longer use their favorite choice of tobacco,” Hasenfus said. “But at the same time, I think protecting teenagers and young Mainers and keeping them from getting hooked in the first place is a very important goal.”

By: David Marino Jr. | Bangor Daily News