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U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Accusing electronic cigarette makers of taking their cues from the Joe Camel-era of tobacco marketing, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal announced Monday an effort to ban the marketing e-cigarettes to kids.

The two lawmakers announced the legislation at a press conference in the Legislative Office Building. Blumenthal, Connecticut’s former attorney general, pointed to a display featuring Joe Camel, the discontinued cartoon mascot of Camel cigarettes. Camel axed the character in the 1990s amidst litigation claiming the cartoon was aimed at marketing tobacco to minors.

“I remember these ads well. They’re the reason that we sued Big Tobacco. They no longer exist,” Blumenthal said Monday. “Now Big Tobacco is buying e-cigarette companies. Do you think it is because Big Tobacco wants to promote smoking cessation? I don’t think so.”

The legislation is an attempt at weighing in on the growing and currently unregulated industry that makes vapor-based nicotine delivery products like e-cigarettes. There are no federal or state restrictions prohibiting sale of the products to children.

Nationwide, Esty said that more than 1.8 million middle school and high school students have tried the smokeless cigarettes and 75 percent have tried traditional tobacco.

This year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed legislation which would make such sales illegal in Connecticut. That bill is awaiting action in the state Senate.

Blumenthal and Esty are not proposing a federal ban on sales to minors, rather they are seeking to restrict how the products are marketed. Federal lawmakers chose to address marketing instead of an outright ban hoping the proposal will have a better shot at passing through a mostly-gridlocked Congress.

“We’re trying to be effective here and, as you may have noticed, the Congress is not finding it easy to agree on many things but there has been broad general support in the country about not allowing targeting of tobacco ads to our children,” Esty said. “This fits in the same line as other addictive substances that we allow adults to partake in but we do not encourage children to become addicted.”

The legislation prohibits anyone from marketing e-cigarettes in a way that will increase use among kids. Both lawmakers indicated they believe the sale of certain flavors fit that bill. Although some adults use e-cigarettes as a tool to assist them with quitting tobacco, Esty said manufacturers have kids in mind when they sell flavors like bubblegum.

“How many truck drivers do you think are buying gummy bear flavored e-cigarettes to try to quit smoking? I don’t think you’ll find many,” she said.

But it may be restricting the sale of different flavors that proves controversial. Esty’s comments regarding truck drivers drew grumbling from two men who attended the press conference. During the question and answer portion of the news conference, they interjected to oppose the legislation.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Gregory Conley (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Gregory Conley told Esty he worked for The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago. The group has longstanding ties to the tobacco industry and maintains that anti-smoking advocates exaggerate the health risks of smoking.

“Three and a half years ago, I quit smoking with an electronic cigarette, actually in watermelon [flavor]. I regularly use flavors like bubblegum and watermelon to stay smoke free because they disconnect me from the taste of burning smoke,” Conley said.

As a communication aide tried to quiet him, Conley accused Blumenthal of supporting legislation “blatantly violating the constitution.” Blumenthal answered by calling the bill “common sense” and consistent with First Amendment.

After the press conference, Conley told reporters he traveled to Connecticut from Albany when he heard about Monday’s event. Although the Heartland Institute gets money from tobacco companies, Conley said he did similar work “for free” as a volunteer for another group.

The explanation prompted an exchange between Conley and Kevin O’Flaherty, regional director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

“But you’re not a volunteer now, are you Greg,” O’Flaherty said.

“No, I’m not so you can just tar and feather me all you want,” Conley said. “Are you a volunteer?”

“Absolutely not but I just think it should be clear, you were paid to be here,” O’Flaherty said.

Conley, who writes a blog for the conservative think tank, told reporters he was “sick and tired of seeing politicians that are desperate for press attention, try and capitalize on electronic cigarettes.”