Portland is looking to join a national movement to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, citing the adverse public health effects of marketing that targets children, African Americans and other marginalized groups.

Bangor last month became the first Maine municipality to adopt a ban, joining hundreds of communities that have done so across the United States.

Candy flavored cigars are displayed at a tobacco shop in Albany, N.Y., in 2013. The Portland City Council will soon consider banning sales of flavored tobacco in the city. Associated Press/Hans Pennink

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong leads the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which voted 3-0 Tuesday to forward the proposed ban to the full council. The council likely will vote on it late next month or early next year. If it passes, it probably would go into effect in June, around the same time as Bangor’s ban, Chong said.

Enacting such a ban, he said, is important for public health and safety.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Chong said. “It’s happening across the country.”

The proposal comes after at least two bills proposing a statewide ban on flavored tobacco products, including menthol, failed to move forward in the Maine Legislature.

Portland long has been a leader in the state in passing anti-smoking legislation. The city banned smoking in restaurants in 1998 and in many public spaces in 2013, and raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21 in 2016.

The proposed ban defines a flavored tobacco product as “any tobacco product that imparts a taste or smell, other than the taste or smell of tobacco, either prior to, or during the consumption of, a tobacco product, including, but not limited to, any taste or smell relating to fruit, menthol, mint, wintergreen, chocolate, cocoa, vanilla, honey, or any candy, dessert, alcoholic beverage, herb, or spice.”

It would apply to any natural or synthetic tobacco or nicotine products intended to be consumed by inhalation, absorption or ingestion by any other means. That includes flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco and snuff. It also would include any smoking accessories, such as filters, rolling papers, blunt or hemp wraps, hookahs or pipes.

Cannabis products would be excluded, unless they contain or are made of or derived from tobacco and nicotine.

Violations of the ordinance would carry fines of $100 to $500 for each offense.

Bangor’s ban will take effect June 1, 2022. Portland’s proposal does not yet have an effective date.

The committee’s recommendation in support of a full ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products came after three meetings and two public hearings on the topic.

Kirsten Goodrich, who runs the city’s tobacco prevention program, said the Food and Drug Administration’s failure last year to enact a national ban on all flavored tobacco, including menthol, is prompting many municipalities to take action. As of October, more than 330 localities restricted flavored tobacco sales and over 130 restricted mint and menthol flavors, she said.

Since flavored cigarettes, except for menthol, were banned nationally in 2009, youth smoking rates have dropped steadily, Goodrich said. In Maine, surveys have found that youth cigarette use fell from 17.1 percent to 7.1 percent since that ban.

STOPPING YOUTH INITIATION

But other flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and hookahs, have been reversing those gains, especially among younger people, Goodrich said. Although tobacco sales are now limited nationwide to people over 21, she said underage youth still have access, with 42 percent of high school students in the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey reporting that they had recently borrowed tobacco products from someone else and 22 percent reporting that they had recently given someone else money to buy those products for them.

“This attests that having flavored tobacco products available is a major concern,” she said. “Joining other localities by adopting a full flavor ban is an additional strategy to the multifaceted public health approach to stop youth initiation here in Portland.”

Goodrich said that 85 percent of African American smokers and 36 percent of LGBTQ smokers use menthol-flavored products. Including menthol and mint-flavored products in the ban is “critical to promote health equity,” she said.

Tuesday’s public hearing pitted public health officials against local business owners and industry groups. Health officials urged the city to adopt a ban, highlighting it as a way to protect youth and marginalized communities. Business owners, however, said that a ban would only cause people to buy products in neighboring communities, and industry groups urged the city to wait for state or federal regulations to be enacted.

Retailers long have touted vaping as a way to help smokers wean themselves off cigarettes and nicotine addictions, though the long-term health impacts of vaping are not well known.

Thomas Briant, executive director of the Minnesota-based National Association of Tobacco Outlets, said banning flavored e-cigarettes could have the unintended consequence of pushing people back toward cigarettes. He also stated that the FDA now has a pre-market application process before new products can be sold and said that only one in 15,000 applications has been approved. He said he expected the FDA to take action against menthol.

“Clearly the FDA is taking action and we would appreciate the City Council not doing so and let the FDA – through its scientific process – regulate tobacco products on a nationwide basis,” Briant said. 

‘IT’S AN ANESTHETIC’

Dr. Phillip Gardiner, a founding member and co-chair of the California-based African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, urged the city to enact a full ban, with no exceptions. He said that menthol is “not just a flavor, it’s an anesthetic,” and its numbing effect allows users to inhale more toxins and become more addicted.

From 1980 to 2018, Gardiner said, menthol cigarettes were responsible for 1.5 million new smokers and 157,000 smoking-related premature deaths among African Americans. Waiting for federal action will be at the cost of more lives and disease, he said.

“It will take years for the FDA to move on this,” Gardiner said. “Even if they put the rule out next year, it will be two to three years before anything happens.”

Store owners insisted they take great care in not selling tobacco products to minors. And they noted that cigarettes remain legal, even though adverse health impacts are well known.

“No one wants to sell tobacco to minors. We do everything we can to prevent it,” said Anna Bettencourt, a representative of  Energy North Group, which operates three stores in Portland and others in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. “The sale of tobacco to minors and flavor bans are two separate issues. Adults should be able to get flavored tobacco if that’s what they choose.”

Dan Morin, director of communication and government affairs for the Maine Medical Association, the state’s largest physician association, said that flavored products are inherently more attractive to children, pointing to flavored medicine and toothpaste as examples.

“Why does children’s medicine and toothpaste come in flavors?” Morin asked. “Because it works.”


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