Frustrated by the Trump administration’s retreat from a pledge to ban flavored vaping products at the federal level, anti-tobacco advocates are doubling down on a push to enact a statewide prohibition in Connecticut.
“Everybody had high hopes in September when the president announced a plan to eliminate the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes, but clearly that plan has been in the process of being watered down almost since the day he first introduced it,” said Kevin O’Flaherty, an advocacy director with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “We are actively encouraging both the governor and the legislature in Connecticut to consider addressing this issue.”
Two months ago, as hundreds of people across the country contracted a mysterious lung disease linked to vaping, President Trump announced from the Oval Office that he would pursue a ban on most flavored e-cigarettes.
The plan would have pulled flavored vaping products, including mint and menthol, from the market. The flavors would not have been allowed back without specific approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Officials at the time said the policy was being finalized and that it probably would go into effect a month later.
“We can’t allow people to get sick. And we can’t have our youth be so affected,” Trump said in September. He added that the first lady felt “very, very strongly” about the issue because of their 13-year-old son, Barron.
But last week, the president backed off his proposal, saying he didn’t want to move forward because he feared the prohibition would lead to job losses. He also warned that a flavor ban could spawn more counterfeit vaping products.
White House and campaign officials have said that Trump balked because he worried that angering Vape Shop owners and their customers might cost him at the polls next year.
Supporters of a ban on flavored vaping and tobacco products are now pinning their hopes for swift action on state leaders.
The General Assembly in Massachusetts last week passed a sweeping prohibition on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco goods, including menthol cigarettes, which, if signed into law, would make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to bar all flavored vaping and tobacco products. The New York City Council on Tuesday also voted to outlaw all flavored e-cigarettes and e-liquid vaping products, including menthol.
“In the absence of federal leadership on this issue, we are calling on state and local governments to take a comprehensive, evidence-based approach, and that includes clearing the markets of all flavored tobacco products,” said Ruth Canovi, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Connecticut. “We’re seeing more and more youth use electronic cigarettes.”
Nationally, more than one in four high school students use e-cigarettes, according to federal data. Among that group, 27.5% reported vaping during the previous 30 days, up from 20.8% in 2018, preliminary results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual National Youth Tobacco Survey show. Fruit, menthol and mint were the most popular flavors, with more than 60% of teens who vaped saying they used them.
“There’s no need for flavoring. We shouldn’t be making these products enticing,” said Bryte Johnson, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “We’re looking at the culprit, the No. 1 reason, why people are trying these products, especially kids. To me, a ban is an easy choice.”
Several lawmakers on board
This fall, guided by grim statistics on youth vaping and a surge of lung illness cases in Connecticut, several lawmakers here vowed to explore barring flavored vaping products during the 2020 session, which begins in February.
They renewed that promise as news of Trump’s reversal surfaced.
“Clearly, this is something we should do if there is not going to be federal action on it,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney said. “I think there’s broad-based support for it. It should pass.”
“Flavored vaping is the thing that’s particularly geared toward the young. It’s really a cynical manipulation to try to attract teenagers to use vaping devices,” he added. “It would make sense for us to do a ban at the state level since the federal government has once again failed on a significant issue of public health.”
The effort appears to have some bipartisan support. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he would back a flavor ban.
“It’s a health issue. We need to get rid of it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to shut down those 24-hour gasoline stations. They sell a lot of different things. I just think it is a sin, what’s happening to our kids.”
Vape shop and other business owners across Connecticut have expressed concern about the idea. Lawmakers included a prohibition on flavors in their Tobacco 21 bill last year, but stripped it out before the measure passed the General Assembly.
State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, suggested legislators take aim at disposable e-cigarettes, so store owners and people who rely on vaping liquids to quit smoking aren’t unfairly penalized.
“Kids are not walking into a vape shop and buying a $100 vaping device. They’re buying a quick-hit device,” he said. “Those are the ones you get at a bodega or a gas station, like Juul or Blu. That’s what kids are buying.”
Some longtime smokers trying to kick the habit rely on vaping products that would be outlawed under a widespread ban, Scanlon said.
“I smoked for 15 years and my father died of lung cancer, so I’m pretty familiar with this,” he said. “Guys like me or my dad who are smoking cigarettes, who may use e-cigarettes to quit – we shouldn’t stop them from doing that.”
Legislative leaders said there was no consensus yet on what might be included in a bill banning flavored vaping and tobacco products. Discussions will take place in the coming weeks.
“All of those who were involved in the [Tobacco 21] legislation are planning to get together again to talk about what we want to do next year,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a co-chair of the Public Health Committee. “Certainly, I would say there’s impetus to ban flavors. But I want to make sure that we’re really looking at the problems and addressing them directly.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Ned Lamont pledged earlier this fall to take strong action as the number of Connecticut residents with lung illnesses climbed. To date, 39 cases of the disease have been reported to the state’s health department. One person has died.
The CDC, which has logged 2,290 cases and 47 deaths nationally, has warned people against using THC-containing vaping products and against purchasing e-cigarettes from friends, family or online dealers.
In September, Lamont said he would consider a ban on flavored vaping products as part of a multi-state approach to regulating e-cigarettes. The governor said he would look into what he could do by executive order, or press for the issue to be raised in a special session or during the regular session in 2020.
After weighing the options, Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said recently: “We think the best path, that’s the safest path, is through the General Assembly” in February.
The governor is trying to avoid the kind of litigation that has happened in other states, he said. New York and Michigan, whose leaders used executive authority to impose flavor bans this year, have been sued by vape shop owners and e-cigarette manufacturers, undercutting those efforts.
“The governor remains committed to protecting the health of our children by better regulating vape and e-cigarette products. Gov. Lamont also wants any solution to be effective, and not be held up in court,” Reiss said. “To that end, he will work collaboratively with the General Assembly this session to ensure the public health and safety of all Connecticut consumers who use these products.
“If the federal government won’t act in the interests of public health, then it is up to states to fill that void.”