AUGUSTA, Maine — A flavored tobacco ban cleared a Democratic-led legislative committee on Thursday, putting Maine on track to become the third state to enact such a sweeping prohibition on those products.
The measure, from Sen. Jill Duson, D-Portland, would bar the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and other tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, by 2025 under a version endorsed by Democrats on the Legislature’s health committee. It now goes to the chambers for votes.
Debate in Augusta has been marked in part by an urban-rural divide and tension between the health implications of the proliferating products and personal freedom. Democrats have generally led the effort against Republican opposition. But it is not a strict partisan split and the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine joined a coalition backing a ban.
“There are few among us who have not experienced the predation of the tobacco industry,” said Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who co-chairs the health panel.
Maine lawmakers favored a ban on these products in 2021, but it was stripped from a bipartisan budget deal by Republicans. The cost of that prohibition was pegged at $32 million over two years. Lawmakers will have to find money to cover the budget gap in the final version of a spending proposal recently floated by Gov. Janet Mills.
Only Massachusetts and California have enacted total bans, while three other states only ban flavored e-cigarettes. The charge has been led mostly by health groups including the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which has noted Maine’s higher rates of smoking and e-cigarette use among high school students than the rest of the country.
Opponents, including the convenience store industry and the conservative Maine Policy Institute, have pointed to the loss in tax revenue in Massachusetts after the ban, although a study on that topic showed that it was not clear if the ban was associated with increased sales in cross-border states including New Hampshire.
Republicans on the health committee tried to either vote down the bill Thursday or pass an amendment only banning the sale of flavored vaping liquids that have not received federal modified risk orders showing they offer some health benefits for those who are transitioning from other uses of tobacco such as smoking.
Rep. Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea, said he feels “like I’m a hypocrite if I sit there and say I’m going to ban tobacco products to save people’s lives, but I’m OK if you want to smoke all the marijuana you want and I’m OK with you doing drugs as long as you do them safely.”
“It’s a slippery slope as we start to ban things,” Rep. Ann Fredericks, R-Sanford, said.
The coalition backing the ban has touted polling showing majority support for such a ban among Mainers. However, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, which opposes the measure, provided its own survey showing majority opposition to banning menthol cigarettes.
Some rural Democrats were skeptical of bringing the idea back early this year, although Rockland and Bar Harbor have approved similar bans this year, bringing the number of Maine communities with prohibitions to six.
Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, who co-chairs the health panel, said he knows “it is not popular to make restrictions on things,” but he pointed to Maine having tobacco use and cancer rates above the national average.
“Many of us have personally seen the ravages that tobacco can have on people’s lives, people’s bodies, families [and] communities,” he said.