Advocates for banning flavored tobacco products press on despite setback

FILE- This Sept. 16, 2019 file photo shows flavored vaping solutions in a window display at a vape and smoke shop in New York.

FILE- This Sept. 16, 2019 file photo shows flavored vaping solutions in a window display at a vape and smoke shop in New York.

Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press

The battle to ban flavored e-cigarettes and other tobacco products hit a roadblock recently when the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee approved a measure that assumes no change in current law.

But advocates for a broad-based prohibition said Tuesday that the struggle is not over and remained hopeful that some restrictions could be enacted before the General Assembly adjourns its regular session on June 9.

“We were very disappointed that the finance committee chose to place the billions in profits for big tobacco over the health and safety of our children,” said Bryte Johnson, government relations director for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

Johnson was referring to a package of tax changes and other revenue modifications for the next two-year state budget cycle that the finance committee endorsed last week. Absent from that package were two proposals that — if enacted — would cost the state money.

One was a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, which would cost the state about $2.5 million per year.

The second was the ban on menthol cigarettes and all other flavored tobacco products. Coupled with the e-cigarette proposal, the potential hit from this option reaches $108 million per year, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, and Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chairs of the finance committee, did not comment on their panel’s decision.

Analysts say state finances, unless adjusted, will run more than $2.5 billion in deficit over the next two fiscal years combined. But Connecticut recently received more than $2.6 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds that can be used to cover that shortfall, holds more than $3 billion in its emergency reserve — and expects to close the fiscal year on June 30 with another $800 million left over.

Stacked against those resources, Johnson said, a revenue hit ranging from $2.5 million to $108 millions seems more than manageable.

“If there was ever a time we could afford to lose a little revenue to protect our children, this is the time, don’t you think?” he added.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, who favors banning menthol cigarettes and all flavored tobacco products, said he knew the omnibus ban would be very challenging, given the much larger revenue loss.

But Anwar, a physician and vice chairman of the Public Health Committee, said the finance panel’s decision not to endorse even a ban on flavored vaping products was particularly disturbing, adding that vaping use is approaching “epidemic level” in the nation’s middle and high schools.

Johnson noted that there are approximately 15,500 flavors of tobacco products on the market, and while e-cigarettes are pitched as a tool to help people quit smoking, the plethora of flavor choices was developed with the goal of addicting young consumers.

“It is illogical to think the best way to quit a product is to make it taste better,” he said.

All three of Connecticut’s immediate neighbors — Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York — have banned flavored e-cigarettes, and the Bay State has gone farther, prohibiting all flavored tobacco products.

Juul Labs, which makes the most popular e-cigarette in the U.S., submitted written testimony earlier this year arguing that the federal Food and Drug Administration “is the body best positioned to develop and implement policy relating to tobacco products, including on flavors.”

And Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, said Tuesday that any state-by-state approach to banning tobacco products is simply going to trigger “an enormous black market” that won’t be subject to federal standards and scrutiny.

“You’re asking for all sorts of trouble,” he said.

“This is not a flavor problem, this is a product issue,” Shaer added.

Anwar said he remains hopeful that some, or possibly all, of the elements from that measure will make it to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk.

“My colleagues are extremely caring about the community, extremely caring about the next generation,” he said.

Lamont proposed only a ban on flavored e-cigarettes in the two-year budget he offered legislators in February.

“Governor Lamont firmly believes we need to reduce youth access to these addictive and potentially harmful products and seeks the best means to achieve that important public health goal,” Melissa McCaw, the governor’s budget director, said this week. “The legislative and budget process are far from over, and we are confident we will find a solution. Our neighboring states have acted to keep our young people safe when it comes to vape products as he laid out in his budget proposal. It is time for Connecticut to do the same.”

And if legislators aren’t swayed by the public health concerns tied to flavored tobacco, Johnson added, the long-term costs are far greater than the revenue loss associated with a flavor ban.

Health care costs in Connecticut related to tobacco use exceed $2 billion per year, he said, citing data from a 2020 report from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.