BOSTON — With their stores shuttered for the day, more than 100 convenience store owners gathered outside the Statehouse on Wednesday to amplify their opposition to efforts at the city and state levels to ban menthol cigarettes along with flavored vaping and tobacco products.
While it appears increasingly likely that the Legislature will seek to put some guardrails on vaping in the coming weeks, convenience store owners have been increasing the pressure on lawmakers to keep their focus on that issue, which is blamed for a nationwide outbreak of lung illnesses and related deaths, and to leave paper cigarettes alone.
"We have been in the trenches for several years trying to educate our elected officials ... because the state, what they're trying to do, will have nothing but negative consequences," said Paresh Patel, who owns Express Mart stores on Cape Cod. "The government's getting confused. We have an issue with vaping, we all know that. We want to work with the government. Menthol is not the issue, flavored tobacco is not an issue."
The Ways and Means committees of the House and Senate are reviewing legislation (H 4089/S 2357) based on a bill filed by Sen. John Keenan of Quincy and Rep. Danielle Gregoire of Marlborough to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. Legislative leaders have suggested they would like to take the issue up before Nov. 20, when the Legislature will take a break from formal business until January.
Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, said that tying menthol cigarettes to the explosion in youth vaping and the more recent outbreak of lung illnesses is "the worst kind of opportunism."
"To our elected leaders: address vaping. Ban it if you must, but remove menthol and mint from any regulation. They have nothing to do with this issue," he said.
But to supporters of the flavor ban, menthol cigarettes have a lot to do with the issue of youth tobacco use.
"The tobacco industry and retailers who sell menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products know that mint and menthol are popular flavors among kids. Big Tobacco has targeted communities of color with their products, disproportionately addicting young people of color. It's not surprising they are resistant to laws that will impact their profits," Mo Barbosa, chairman of the Men of Color Task Force, said in a statement circulated by the group Fight All Flavors.
The federal government banned all flavors of cigarettes except mint and menthol in 2009. In a fact sheet on the proposed legislation, Keenan's office said 54.5 percent of high schoolers and 48.4 percent of middle schoolers who smoke use menthol cigarettes.
Michael Cummings, Keenan's director of communications, said any legislation that seeks to address youth tobacco use but does not include a ban on menthol and mint products will be ineffective and a gift to the tobacco industry. All eyes are on the Ways and Means committees, which have the ability to redraft the legislation to remove menthol products from the ban.
"If menthol is taken out of this bill, it is no longer a bill protecting kids from tobacco companies. Without menthol, a bill that's meant to protect kids becomes an industry bill," Cummings said.
The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, in a letter sent last month to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, agreed and urged the branches to retain the language banning menthol cigarettes.
"To really address the problem of youth addiction, it is imperative that the State of Massachusetts not lose sight of the fact that menthol in cigarettes and little cigars are driving not only youth uptake, but also health disparities among our citizens," the group wrote. "If the State government truly wants a healthier Commonwealth, and we believe that you do, then it is imperative that the sale of menthol and all other flavored tobacco products, vaping and combustibles, be prevented from being sold in the State."
In testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce last month, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said about 67 percent of the state's population lives in one of the 161 cities and towns that restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products at the local level.
Bharel said a 2019 study on flavored tobacco product restrictions in Massachusetts found that the use of both flavored and unflavored products decreased in communities with restrictions, while youth usage rates increased in communities without similar restrictions.
"While this is a strong way to protect our youth from exposure and access to these products, we have also realized a flavored product restriction that excludes mint, menthol and wintergreen products, leaves many people behind — people who historically have been targeted by the tobacco industry with these products," Bharel wrote in her prepared testimony. "We are working to correct this and to date, 13 municipalities have included mint, menthol and wintergreen in their flavored tobacco product restrictions."
Shaer argued that a prohibition on flavors would mean that the products would only be available from illicit sources, which don't offer the same types of protections as regulated sales at convenience stores.
"Menthol cigarettes and mint smokeless tobacco are more than a $1 billion market. That demand will not disappear because you choose to ban or heavily restrict it. It will simply find another market," he said. "Rational alternatives exist. Tax vaping, mandatory ID scanning, increase compliance penalties, proper funding for tobacco education and cessation programs, closing online loopholes, tough penalties on enabling adults, and purchase, use and possession laws for youth who knowingly violate those laws."
When they were asked about the issue of menthol cigarettes last week, Senate President Karen Spilka, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker avoided taking a position one way or the other.
Spilka said the Senate is "actively working on this and taking a look at that," while DeLeo noted that "most of the discussion so far has really involved more candy-type flavors because most of the discussion has been especially relative to the children and vaping products."