Tobacco, vaping products with flavor ban targeted

As more and more young people begin to use e-cigarettes and other vapor products with nicotine, often initially tempted by an appealing flavor, students and lawmakers made their push Tuesday for Massachusetts to ban the sale of almost all flavored tobacco and tobacco products, including mentholated cigarettes and some popular vape products.

The push for a ban on flavored tobacco products comes as high rates of e-cigarette use among Massachusetts teens and the prevalence of vaping frighten doctors and as advocates and supporters of the ban say flavored tobacco and vape products are geared towards teens -- 80 percent of high school tobacco users say they’ve used a flavored product in the last 30 days, they said.

Last July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law raising the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, a move supporters said would help keep tobacco products out of the social circles of younger teens. This year, policymakers are eyeing approaches aimed at curbing e-cigarette access and use among young people.

Rep. Danielle Gregoire of Marlborough and Sen. John Keenan of Quincy filed bills (S 1279/H 1902) that would ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products in Massachusetts. Keenan said Tuesday the only exception “would be if somebody wants to purchase a flavor in an adult smoking bar, which they can do now with flavored tobacco products.”

The federal government banned all flavors of cigarettes except mint and menthol in 2009. The Keenan/Gregoire legislation would also ban menthol and mint-flavored cigarettes.

“We have limited it and, quite frankly, it’s not working,” Gregoire said when asked why she is seeking to ban all flavored tobacco and vapor products rather than try to further limit their sale to of-age adults. “We know that for every adult that picks up an e-cigarette device, six youth are getting their hands on it and we heard from the students today how pervasive it is in our schools so we know that our ban is not working and we need to go further to protect our youth from these products that literally have no public value.”

Year-over-year in Massachusetts, there has been a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette use among high school students and a 48 percent increase among middle school students, Keenan said.

Dozens of high school and college students who said the use of nicotine vapor products has become a widespread aspect of student life turned out to pitch the bill to the Committee on Public Health, as did about 200 convenience store owners and workers who told lawmakers to find a more effective way to prevent youth tobacco use or vaping.

Matt Murphy, a rising junior at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said he was addicted to vaping nicotine with a Juul device for about two years until he kicked the habit last summer.

“My addiction cost me thousands of dollars and my tenure as a subservient footsoldier doing the bidding of Juul tormented me mentally,” he said. Other students told stories of walking into school bathrooms to find clouds of vapor rising over stall dividers and seeing students vape in classes.

Juul has said that it never marketed to anyone underage and always tries to block anyone below the age of 21 from purchasing its products. Last year, it stopped selling some flavors of pods in stores and now only sells them online where the age of a customer can be verified.