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Jeff Leadbetter is the president of Leadbetter’s Super Stops, based in Bangor.
Maine legislators are considering a law that would ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products in Maine. If passed, it will, I believe, do nothing to stop people from smoking, vaping, and dipping but will devastate the state’s convenience store operators who provide these products to our adult customers through a legal, licensed, taxed, and enforced framework. The sponsors of LD 1550 say they want to prevent youth from vaping, but instead, they’re casting such a wide net that it will take away legal adult-preferred tobacco products from Maine’s adults.
While this “feel good” bill offers the public a sense that something is being done to keep young people from getting their hands on e-cigarettes, studies show cigarette smoking has been at historic lows, and vaping, a trend that started five years ago, is already on the decline. Age-verification laws to stop underage sales and cessation and prevention programs seem to be working.
In 2019, former President Donald Trump signed legislation prohibiting tobacco sales to anyone under 21 years old. Where they weren’t already in place, states soon followed the legislation to pass laws to enforce the mandate. Today, in Maine, it is illegal to sell tobacco to anyone under 21, establishments are required to post signs stating that sales to minors are prohibited, and children are forbidden from buying electronic smoking devices, including e-cigarettes.
So why is the state intent on passing yet another law that will infringe on an adult’s right to choose what type of cigarettes they want to smoke, what kind of dip they like to chew, or what flavor they want to vape? It makes no sense.
The New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association (NECSEMA) tracks the regional market. Its analysis of the impact on Massachusetts after lawmakers passed similar legislation also shows bans like these fail miserably in curbing tobacco use and put licensed tobacco retailers in a position to lose customers and the state in the place to lose millions of dollars in excise and sales tax revenue while being unable to claim a degree of public health benefit. A poll of several NECSEMA members with retailer operations throughout the region revealed that in the months following the implementation of the Massachusetts ban, total cigarette sales in New Hampshire jumped 46 percent, menthol cigarette sales grew by 90 percent, and sales of mint/wintergreen smokeless tobacco more than doubled compared to the same period in 2019. The Tax Foundation points to a JAMA study of the Massachusetts ban that shows, according to the foundation, that consumption of flavored tobacco products hasn’t disappeared there. Instead, sales to Massachusetts residents merely moved out of state, taking $125 million in excise sales taxes with them in 2021 alone. The same will likely happen in Maine.
As the co-owner of convenience stores across the state, I see first-hand how Maine’s convenience store owners — large and small — and the wholesalers who supply them struggle daily to stay in business. As we emerge from the darkest days of the pandemic, we have hopes for recovery despite high gas prices, inflation, labor shortages, supply chain issues, more regulations, and now, the possibility that our state leaders may force us to yank up to 40 percent of our inventory, flavored tobacco.
In addition, understaffed and underfunded law enforcement officers and code enforcers have enough on their plates.
Adding yet another law that will do little to stop tobacco lovers from enjoying their cigarettes, dip, and vapes makes no sense. Just as they did after Massachusetts passed its flavored tobacco ban, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are poised to take Maine’s tobacco sales and tax dollars. The black market stands ready to meet demand with supplies of foreign and counterfeit products. Social media apps will continue to provide sneaky teens with access to unscrupulous sellers who don’t check IDs and send products directly to their homes. Unfortunately, even some parents and adult friends will supply minors with tobacco.
This bill won’t keep people from buying tobacco. Still, it will most certainly eliminate one of the best barriers to underage tobacco purchases – highly regulated and law-abiding retailers who don’t sell to minors and are trying to recover from one of the worst health and economic disasters in history.