As Bangor inches closer to taking a vote that would make it the first community in Maine to ban flavored tobacco sales, supporters and opponents of the measure are digging in their heels in a debate between health advocates and those who see a ban as ineffective and punitive to businesses and adult users.
The Bangor City Council is expected to vote Monday on a measure that would ban the sale or marketing of all flavored tobacco products in the city — including menthol cigarettes and e-cigarette flavors that have a taste or smell other than that of tobacco — on Jan. 1, 2022.
Retailers who continued to sell or market such products would first face a warning, and then a $50 to $100 fine for their next offense within a two-year period after the warning. A fine of $300 to $1,000 would then be levied for each additional offense within that two-year period.
Responsibility for enforcing the policy on retailers would fall to the city manager.
The measure would make it more difficult for adults and children alike in Bangor to access flavored tobacco products, and retailers say it would represent a sharp loss of revenue for Bangor businesses that sell such products.
Hilary Schneider, regional government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the measure was an obvious solution to a serious problem: children are getting hooked on nicotine at a young age by using flavored tobacco products.
“We believe the choice is clear,” Schneider said. “The choice that the Bangor City Council is making Monday is to protect kids or protect the interests of the tobacco industry.”
Yet concern has grown among local retailers in recent weeks. For Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, the ban would hurt retailers across the city while failing in its objective of preventing those under 21 from acquiring flavored tobacco products.
The vote was an effort by advocates to put life into a statewide ban that had failed to pass the Maine Legislature in previous years. Some advocates have said passage of the ban in Bangor could create momentum for a statewide prohibition that the Legislature will take up in its next session.
“You’re going to put these businesses in dire financial straits to make a statement?” Shaer said.
Flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, represent about 30 percent of a standard convenience store’s income, though it is a much larger percentage for more specialized retailers, Shaer said.
He also takes issue with the way the City Council and its committees have handled debate on the ordinance. The measure unanimously passed the government operations committee early last month with almost no opposition during public comments.
The city did not do enough to publicize that the measure was being put up to a vote, Shaer said. While he says his organization is almost always able to find out about such ordinances under consideration from public notices, his association found out about the vote after it happened from a BDN article.
Calling Bangor’s vote three years too late, he said there were numerous measures the federal government had taken in the past few years that made the ordinance unneeded.
Those include new regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on authorization of e-cigarettes, the minimum age for tobacco increasing to 21 in Maine in 2018 (which later happened nationwide) and Congress expanding an earlier law targeting illicit tobacco sales over the mail so it also applied to e-cigarettes.
But advocates including Schneider, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Flavors Hook Kids said previous measures hadn’t done enough, and a ban in Bangor would be indispensable to keeping nicotine products out of young people’s hands.
There is evidence that young people who use e-cigarettes move on to standard cigarettes, Schneider said, with these products having the possibility of leading many in this generation of adolescents to an early death.
“Anybody who sells tobacco products and those who are in the tobacco industry know the data,” Schneider said. “If someone does not start smoking by the age of 21, they’re highly unlikely to ever start.”
Matt Moonen, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group EqualityMaine, initially brought the matter to City Councilor Sarah Nichols, chair of the committee that first considered the ban, according to committee documents.
Moonen, who did not respond to requests for comment Friday, argued that aggressive marketing of flavored tobacco products had particularly affected LGBTQ youth, who are more likely than others to use tobacco.
Those who spoke in support of the ban at the government operations committee meeting, or said the availability of flavored products harmed children, included the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Public Health Association, the Bangor YMCA, the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.