A renewed push to ban flavored tobacco products in Maine brought dozens of supporters and opponents to the State House on Tuesday at the bill’s first committee hearing.
It follows a similar proposal to end flavored tobacco sales that narrowly failed in 2021 after Democrats met a Republican demand to strip the $32 million needed to cover tax revenue that would be lost out of a budget deal. But advocates are trying again after two Maine municipalities enacted bans this year.
Here’s what the latest bill would do, how it fits into the emerging national landscape around similar bans and what researchers and advocates say about it.
What is banned under the bill, and what are the penalties?
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, electronic smoking devices and flavored cigars.
Specifically, the proposal defines a “flavored tobacco product” as having a “taste or smell” relating to things such as “fruit, menthol, mint, wintergreen, chocolate, cocoa, vanilla, honey or any candy, dessert, beverage, herb or spice,” or a “cooling or numbing sensation distinguishable by an ordinary consumer during the consumption of the tobacco product.”
Retailers who violate the bill, if it becomes law, would face a $1,000 fine for the first offense and a $5,000 fine for a repeat offense.
What have studies found on flavored tobacco bans in other cities and states?
Studies on laws banning flavored tobacco sales have come to different health and economic conclusions while examining different factors and outcomes.
A 2022 study from American Cancer Society researchers looked at a similar ban in Massachusetts that took effect in 2020 and any corresponding changes to sales there and in surrounding states.
The results were consistent with a previous study’s findings on how initial increases in cigarette sales were not sustained. The authors also noted that online sales were not accounted for and that Massachusetts “implemented other tobacco control policies that could affect the results.”
A Yale School of Public Health study looked at San Francisco’s 2018 ban on flavored tobacco sales and smoking rates among high school students younger than 18.
The research, published in 2021, found the city’s ban “was associated with higher odds of self-reported recent smoking among minor high school students relative to trends in other school districts” and raised concerns that reducing access to e-cigarettes could turn people to smoking. The study, however, measured a time before the ban was fully implemented.
What states and Maine towns ban flavored tobacco sales?
Maine would join two states with similar bans. Massachusetts was the first state in the nation to ban all flavored tobacco products, with the law taking effect for e-cigarettes in 2019 and the following year for other products. California passed a ban on flavored tobacco that took effect in late 2022. New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island ban flavored e-cigarettes only.
In Maine, the cities of Portland, South Portland, Bangor, Brunswick and Rockland have banned flavored tobacco in a way similar to the statewide legislation.
What do supporters and opponents of Maine’s proposal to ban flavored tobacco say?
Two press conferences were held Tuesday at the State House ahead of public hearings featuring groups on opposite sides of the flavored tobacco ban debate.
Duson, the senator sponsoring the ban, said tobacco companies prey on minorities, especially Black residents, resulting in “devastating” health effects. Proponents of the flavored tobacco ban, including various groups in the Flavors Hook Kids Maine coalition, released results from a recent poll showing majority support among Maine voters for the legislation.
Those proponents included Julia Ryan, a senior at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, who said flavored tobacco use is “rampant” at the school and noted one in five Maine high school students use tobacco products.
“I’ve seen close friends … derail their lives getting addicted to e-cigarettes,” Ryan added.
Opponents argue that consumers can simply go to New Hampshire or online to buy flavored tobacco. They also argued Maine’s budget would take a hit due to lost tax revenue and said retailers already check IDs to ensure those under the age of 21 do not buy the products.
Christine Peters, chief operating officer of Maine Smoke Shop, which has 19 locations in the state, said “D.C. lobbyists” and “anti-Mainers” are ignoring the “real problem, which is that many online sites illegally sell tobacco flavors to our teens.”
Rep. Aaron Dana, a non-voting member who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe, opposes the ban as well, noting “Tobacco is a very significant and spiritual part of my culture and where I come from.”