This Dec. 11, 2019, file photo shows a cloud of vapor being released from an electronic cigarette by a man, who declined to be identified, while smoking on his work break in Tukwila, Washington. Credit: Elaine Thompson | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposal to virtually ban electronic cigarettes in Maine looked like it faced an uphill battle at a State House hearing on Wednesday, with health organizations supportive or ambivalent as consumers argued the devices helped them curb smoking.

The state has banned internet sales of tobacco products and raised the minimum age to buy tobacco, along with vaping products, from 18 to 21, which the federal government followed late last year. A 43 percent sales tax on wholesale e-cigarettes took effect this year.

The Legislature will now consider whether to prohibit the sale of current and new e-cigarette devices and nicotine liquids until the federal government proves they can help people reduce tobacco consumption. The bill, from Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, would make exceptions for devices sold at medical marijuana dispensaries.

Millett argued Wednesday at a Health and Human Services Committee meeting that her bill would cut back on consumption of tobacco products, particularly for youths — more than 5 million middle and high school students were using the products in 2019, according to the FDA — which has been tied to an increased use of flavored tobacco products.

She also argued the products are creating respiratory problems among consumers and pointed to ongoing concerns about lung illnesses and deaths linked to the use of those products.

“They are being used by corporations to grow their profit margins,” Millett said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is neutral on her ban, but other health organizations in the state are divided on whether tougher restrictions for adults are the key to less tobacco consumption. Businesses, lobbying organizations and consumers who packed the hearing say further restrictions will cause harm.

The American Heart Association recommended three different ways to address the issue: banning all flavored tobacco products — a federal ban on fruity e-cigarette flavors starts Thursday, but menthol and tobacco-flavored products will still be allowed — raising the tobacco excise tax and funding Maine’s tobacco prevention program at CDC recommended levels.

Maine’s program is currently funded at 83 percent of the CDC’s recommended level of $15.9 million. In testimony, the heart association said “without our best and most serious efforts … the problem will get worse.”

Both the Maine Public Health Association and Maine Nurse Practitioner Association, which represent health professionals in the state, advocate that cutting off access to the products is best until a better understanding of how the products affect tobacco consumption is gained.

While the FDA found that 89 percent of people who participated in a study used e-cigarettes to reduce cigarette smoking, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded there is insufficient evidence that e-cigarettes reduce tobacco consumption among adults.

Dozens of residents who testified Wednesday disagreed. Amanda Robbins Rowe said vaping flavored e-cigarette pods has proved “wildly successful” in allowing her and her family to curb a multiple cigarette pack a day habit. She pointed to a 2018 United Kingdom study that found vaping is 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

“E-cigarettes were so successful for us due largely to the fact that they allowed us to continue to have a smoking experience without smoking,” Rowe said.

Conservatives argued that people have the right to choose the products they use regardless of health consequences, with former state Sen. Eric Brakey, a Republican candidate for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, saying “this isn’t centrally planned, communist China.”

Business owners and lobbying groups for convenience stores and vaping products said the restrictions in Millett’s bill would benefit tobacco companies and cause people to seek unregulated products. They argued pending federal regulations, including one to require businesses to prove new products will be marketed in a way that protects public health, would make further action unnecessary.

“When you restrict access, you are effectively pushing that demand to markets that are not in the legal, licensed, regulated, enforced and taxed framework that exists today,” said John Shaer, the executive director of an industry group for New England convenience stores.