Commentary

Maine’s flavored tobacco ban goes too far

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The Maine Legislature will soon debate LD 1550, a bill that would ban the legal sale of all flavored tobacco products in the state, and in the process, dismantle the state’s licensed, regulated, enforced and taxed framework that exists to ensure these age-restricted products are sold only to adults. A similar policy in Massachusetts has failed with dreadful consequences, and Maine would be well-advised not to follow suit.

By now, most know that flavored vape products have considerable youth appeal. But LD 1550 goes well beyond addressing flavored vape, and would ban all flavored tobacco products including traditional products like mint/wintergreen smokeless tobacco and menthol cigarettes.

Unlike vape, these products come in just a couple flavors and do not demonstrate nearly the same youth appeal. In fact, the latest National Youth Tobacco Survey reports just 3.1% of high-schoolers use smokeless tobacco and 4.6% report smoking a cigarette. That’s a far cry from the nearly 1 in 5 youths who report vaping.

Smokeless and cigarettes are adult-preferred products and have enormous market demand. Menthol cigarettes alone are an $80 million market in Maine. Banning them from legal sale would do nothing to squelch that demand, rather it would simply push it elsewhere, just as it has in Massachusetts.

The most likely destination is New Hampshire, the number one export state for cigarettes in the country due to its relatively low excise tax rate and absence of a sales tax. Online and black-market street sales would also surge to fill the void and meet the demand created by the prohibition of these legal adult products.

Look no further than Massachusetts for evidence of this disastrous policy. On June 1, 2020, the Commonwealth banned the sale of all flavored tobacco by licensed retailers. In the following 10 months, the state has lost over $110 million in tax revenue and watched as 76% of banned cigarette sales came back into the state over the Rhode Island and New Hampshire borders, where sales were up 16% and 22%, respectively.

Maine shares a very long border with New Hampshire, an access point which cannot be ignored by anyone interested in developing sound tobacco policy. The same dynamic will undoubtedly occur here as cigarette traffickers will buy cartons in New Hampshire and sell them in Maine, untaxed and unregulated.

Anti-tobacco lobbyists know the data on youth smoking doesn’t support this type of ban and that it will do nothing to decrease youth smoking, which is their stated goal.

Ironically, Maine is doing more than most other states in the country to reduce youth initiation and promote adult cessation. The American Lung Association gives Maine an A-grade, one of only 3 states in the entire country, for its $15 million funding of tobacco control programs. Funding education and cessation is how we teach our youth, not a failed 1920s-era policy like prohibition.

This debate should be about thoughtful policy making and consequence-mitigation. The fact is, banning products with tens of millions in market demand will not solve a problem, but will only create others that the state is ill-equipped to manage.

Maine should not follow Massachusetts’ misguided policies and should remain on the path it is on now. The state should continue to fund state anti-smoking programs and keep these products within the regulated, enforced and taxed framework. Prohibition has not worked elsewhere, and it won’t work in Maine.

About Jonathan Shaer

Jonathan Shaer is executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association.

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