Vaping products Credit: LezinAV via Shutterstock

A proposal to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vape products in Connecticut won’t advance this year after the Public Health Committee stripped the legislation Monday and used it as a vehicle to boost funding for tobacco cessation programs.

The bill had sought to prohibit the sale of flavored nicotine products with the exception of menthol in an effort to reduce smoking and vaping among young people. The Public Health Committee has advanced similar proposals during the last several sessions only to see them scaled back by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and later stall out altogether.

This year, the Public Health Committee made its own alterations. During a Monday meeting, the panel jettisoned the nicotine ban and installed two new concepts before advancing the formerly controversial bill on a comfortable 34 – 3 vote. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

In its new form, the proposal will do two things: it will boost tobacco settlement funding for smoking cessation and prevention programs from $12 million to $22.7 million, a number recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. It will also create a working group to evaluate taxes, fees and penalties related to the sale of nicotine products.

In an interview Tuesday, Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, said some members of the committee were not comfortable with advancing a flavored tobacco ban in part due to disputes over the efficacy of such prohibitions. McCarthy Vahey, partway through her first session as the panel’s co-chair, said she felt more groundwork needed to be done in order to get a ban across the finish line. 

“That’s why you step back and say, ‘Okay. What can we do first?’ Number one is ensure we have the proper funding; two is let’s make sure we have the right information to have this conversation,” McCarthy Vahey said. “And then we’ll circle back.”

Free of the controversial prohibition, the bill found broad support on the committee. Rep. Jamie Foster, D-Ellington, said she hoped the working group created under the bill would recommend licensing fees for nicotine sellers and fines for bad actors that were high enough to support broader enforcement of rules barring the sale of nicotine to minors.

“I can’t think of a good, credible reason why anyone would argue against fines for selling to minors or increasing licensing fees to make sure that we can enforce that folks who are selling tobacco products are making sure they’re selling them to the right people who should have access versus those who shouldn’t,” Foster said. 

Other lawmakers praised the increase in funding for the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund. Last month, an action network with the American Cancer Society chided Gov. Ned Lamont for proposing a budget that reduced support for the fund. The governor’s proposal calls for transferring $6 million to the fund in each of the next two years. 

On Tuesday, McCarthy Vahey said she took her lead from what she called “the Big Three:” the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association.

“It was very clear in talking with them that their number one priority this year was assuring the proper funding from the tobacco settlement fund dollars,” she said. “We wanted to send a clear message that we’d like to make sure those things are properly funded… We felt that the request for $22.7 million, which is the minimum recommended amount for Connecticut from the CDC, that would be our ask.”

It was unclear Tuesday how that ask would be received by the legislature’s budget-writing committees currently crafting an alternative to Lamont’s proposal. The governor’s administration, meanwhile, argued that the funding included in his budget would amount to $24 million over four years, far outpacing the fund’s support during prior administrations. 

Although those questions will be worked out in the coming weeks, debate over a flavored nicotine ban in Connecticut likely ended on Monday. Asked whether the long-stalled proposal would continue to be part of the conversation in Connecticut, McCarthy Vahey recalled her grandfather, who died of emphysema when she was young. 

“Tobacco prevention and cessation has been an issue of mine since I was in high school,” she said. “I do see a future in this conversation, absolutely.”