Marijuana legalization was not on the Public Health Committee’s agenda Monday, but that did not stop opponents of banning flavored tobacco from rolling the two proposals into the same conversation during a public hearing.
The committee heard public testimony on a bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products in Connecticut. But throughout the hearing, opponents pointed frequently to the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana, which they said was incompatible with the tobacco ban.
“We want to say that cannabis is going to be legal. That’s on the table. On the next end, we’re saying that tobacco products– all flavors, we want to dismiss. We can’t have it both ways in this state. We got to have it one way or another,” said Rev. Boise Kimber of the First Calvary Baptist Church in New Haven.
Both issues are before the legislature during this year’s session but the committee was only seeking testimony Monday on its proposal to prohibit the sale of the flavored nicotine products. The issue came to a head during the testimony of Jim Williams, director of government relations for the American Heart Association.
Williams said his organization supported the nicotine product ban but took no position on the effort to legalize cannabis. Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, wanted to know why. Williams said that while he personally recommended puting only “clean oxygen” into the lungs, he declined to speculate why the heart association did not have an opinion on marijuana.
“What I can tell you is that long term studies have shown that continued tobacco use leads to addiction and related disease and ultimately, many cases, death,” Williams said.
Hwang continued to push Williams. Was the American Heart Association suggesting there were no conclusive health studies on mariijuana? he wanted to know. Before Williams could repeat the group’s position, Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, co-chairman of the committee, interrupted.
“I think you’re being put in an unfortunate position. The discussion of recreational marijuana is not on this bill. In my view, it’s not germaine,” Steinberg told Williams. If the cannabis proposal advances through the legislature, the committee would consider it, he said.
“You’ll have an opportunity to interrogate people who have information and a clear point of view, but I think we’re getting a little far afield,” Steinberg said to Hwang.
Hwang said he was “taken aback” by the remark.
“I do take offense to the word, when you accuse me of interrogating. Let that be noted, Mr. Chair. I’m simply asking a question. If the question is not germain, I’m happy to refrain from it,” he said.
Proponents of banning the tobacco products sought to focus the committee on the impact of the products on underaged consumers. Rep. Bobby Gibson, D- Bloomfield, urged his colleagues to support the proposal. As a teacher, Gibson said he had seen too many young people become addicted to products, which he said were intentionally marketed toward them.
Gibson acknowledged the ban would inconvenience adults who use the products but said it was worth it to prevent kids from getting hooked on nicotine.
“We can’t sacrifice our future to feed the addictions of our past. We just can’t,” Gibson said.
Opponents say that by banning the flavors, the state of Connecticut would forgo millions in tax revenue. In written testimony, Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, said Massachusetts has lost $96 million in cigarette sales and excise tax revenue since that state enacted a similar ban last year.
Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor Democrat who is a medical doctor, called the revenue considerations a “very myoptic perspective” that would be outweighed by long term savings from decreased health care costs as a result of reduced smoking.