The co-chairs of the legislature’s Public Health Committee pushed Thursday for a late-session revival of a proposed ban on menthol cigarettes, a concept which had been scrapped by another committee earlier this month.
During a morning press conference, Sen. Mary Daugherty Abrams, D-Meriden, and Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, called for the reinstatement of the menthol tobacco ban as part of a larger bill banning flavored vaping products — albeit with some skepticism.
“We feel that to really complete the effort to protect the public, [the menthol tobacco ban] needs to be part of the package,” Steinberg said. “But we’re committed this session to moving the ball forward, even if incrementally. This is not the time for us to waste even another year trying to get it perfect. We’re going to move forward.”
In March, the Public Health Committee approved a bill that would have prohibited the sale of both flavored vaping products and menthol tobacco, but the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee stripped the menthol component when it approved the bill earlier this month.
Proponents argue that both types of products are designed to appeal to vulnerable populations, in an effort to get them hooked on nicotine. They contend that vapor products with flavors like cotton candy are aimed at young people and menthol cigarettes are designed to appeal to Black and brown communities. Abrams cited statistics suggesting that 85% of Black smokers used menthol products.
“These campaigns to target certain groups are very effective, quite honestly, and we have to try to do something to get in their way,” she said.
Opponents of banning the products in Connecticut counter that it is already illegal to sell nicotine to people under 21 years old and prohibiting the sale entirely in the state would only drive the markets elsewhere. In written testimony submitted to the Public Health Committee earlier this year, Jonathan Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, called it a “consequence-riddled policy.”
“When there is demand, there is a market. Period. Irrefutable,” he said. “The question the Public Health Committee must ask itself is whether it wants that market to be the legal, licensed, regulated, enforced and taxed system that exists today, or a dismantled system that no longer involves retailers checking IDs and ensuring only legal and regulated products are sold.”
The change also would come with a hefty price tag. The Office of Fiscal Analysis expected the menthol ban to result in a loss of more than $100 million in state tax revenues. When the Finance Committee scrapped the provision, the bill’s fiscal impact dropped from an expected $108 million decline to a $2.5 million loss.
Steinberg argued that it would be an appropriate use of the tobacco settlement fund or other short-term funding to cover those losses in the interest of public health.
“It’s always a shame when we actually contemplate sacrificing the public health to revenue considerations, but $100 million is not an inconsequential piece of change for our budget,” he said. “We wish it was a smaller number so it wouldn’t have been as big an issue.”
Asked Thursday whether the menthol ban could appear as lawmakers negotiate a two-year state operating budget with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, House Speaker Matt Ritter was noncommittal, but said that everything’s on the table.
“We’ll continue to take ideas as they come in. We understand the public health impacts so we’ll continue to have conversations with our caucus about it. I have folks talking about it both ways, actually,” Ritter said.
There are also pending federal changes on the issue. The Food and Drug Administration announced last month it would propose a national ban on menthol and other flavors in tobacco. However, Abrams said she expected it may be awhile before any changes were made on the national level.
“We’ve seen in public health that takes a lot longer and probably aren’t as encouraged that that will happen. So if we can’t get it done this year, it doesn’t mean that the battle is over for us,” she said.
Both chairs said they were hopeful the legislature would pass the flavored vaping product ban this session.
“We know what a lifetime of tobacco and nicotine addiction does to one’s health, so shame on us if we don’t do everything possible to keep that from happening to our children,” Abrams said.