When her children entered middle school, Kim Estes made sure to warn them about the dangers of vaping.
But that didn’t stop her young son from taking up the habit.
“While we did not know it at the time, his vaping journey had begun at the early age of 10 years old after being introduced to scented vaping in middle school,” she told legislators at a public hearing this week. “His continued vaping since then has been dictated completely by which flavorings he likes and which he avoids. Non-flavoring products make him gag; he requires the flavorings to make the nicotine palatable.
“I cannot get the vision of my 10-year-old child vaping out of my mind.”
For the third year in a row, lawmakers are considering a ban on flavored vaping products. Connecticut is one of few states in the region that has not adopted a prohibition on flavored e-cigarettes. New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have barred the sale of flavored vaping products. Massachusetts banned all flavored tobacco items, including flavored cigars, cigarettes and vaping goods.
The proposal was raised in Connecticut in 2020 as part of Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget but was unsuccessful. Lamont had recommended banning flavored vaping products and increasing the tax on all e-cigarette liquids.
Last year, a bill barring the sale of flavored cigarettes, tobacco products and e-cigarettes was watered down and then shelved. A version of the plan was also added to the state budget implementer but was scrapped.
The proposal has become a victim of timing, priorities and money, among other issues. In 2020, the legislative session was suspended just over a month after it started due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The budget was adopted in a special session. Last year, despite a long session, lawmakers said they dealt with a volley of health care legislation, some of which took higher priority. Officials with the state’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that Connecticut would lose $198 million in revenue from the ban during the first two years — another sticking point.
This year, the proposal would target only the sale of flavored vaping products (not flavored cigarettes or cigars). But even in its streamlined form, the bill has triggered pushback from e-cigarette makers, store owners and people who say that vaping — including flavors like menthol — is an important alternative for those who are quitting smoking. In its current form, the measure would ban the sale of menthol flavored vaping products.
“There are extremely divergent points of view on whether or not this is going to be, on balance, a good thing,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a co-chair of the Public Health Committee. “There’s the issue of menthol. There’s the issue of where these products are sold. Can we limit them to ‘adult only’ stores and keep them out of places like gas stations and convenience stores? But then there’s the argument that we’re hurting small businesses.
“We’re trying to come up with a reasonable solution.”
Steinberg said legislators are weighing the need to keep certain vaping products around for people who are trying to quit cigarettes against the dangers of youth vaping.
From 2017 to 2019, the use of vaping more than doubled among high school students, from 11.7% to 27.5%, and tripled among middle school students, from 3.3% to 10.5%, according to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey. The Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said that as of 2019, 27% of high school students in Connecticut and 1 in 20 middle school-aged children used vaping products.
“Flavored e-cigarettes have driven the e-cigarette epidemic — 97% of youth e-cigarette users report using a flavored product in the past month and 70% cite flavors as a reason for their use,” Sandra Carbonari, chair of the Connecticut chapter, wrote to legislators in testimony urging passage of the vaping ban. “Among high school students who used flavored e-cigarettes, the most common flavors were fruit (73%), mint (56%), menthol (37%), and candy (36%). Among middle school students who used flavored e- cigarettes, the most common flavors were fruit (76%), candy (47%), mint (47%), and menthol (23%).”
Because any flavor ban would result in a loss in tax receipts, the measure would have to be referred to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. The co-chairs of that panel, Sen. John Fonfara and Rep. Sean Scanlon, said that while a prohibition against all flavored tobacco products is unlikely in 2022, restrictions aimed at vaping products could have success.
“I continue to be interested in getting something done,” said Scanlon, a Guilford Democrat, who is skeptical that the full General Assembly would support a ban that targets all types of tobacco items.
When the finance committee endorsed a state budget revenue schedule last spring for the 2022-23 fiscal year, that plan included the $1.9 million loss that would stem from barring flavored vaping products.
But the legislature never adopted any policy language actually imposing the ban.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he supports the bill, but it’s too soon to know if it will be successful this year.
“From a health perspective, it’s important because young people are attracted by the flavors,” he said. “But it’s too early to tell [if the measure will pass] because we are in a situation where everything is so volatile. Two or three weeks ago, we weren’t even thinking of having to address an emergency decrease in the gas tax, [which] we’re all talking about now. Who knows what events will continue to impact us as we go along in the session.”
Lamont’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins in July backs out $1.9 million in revenue, assuming the flavor ban would pass.
A bevy of health care officials and advocates turned up at the public hearing and wrote to lawmakers urging them to adopt the flavor ban.
“Cracking down on flavored tobacco products is critical to reversing an epidemic in youth use of electronic vapor products and to reduce youth use of other tobacco products,” members of the Connecticut State Medical Society wrote to legislators. “Flavors alter the taste and reduce the harshness of tobacco products, making them more appealing to young people.”
Officials with the Connecticut Hospital Association, which represents the state’s 27 acute care hospitals, said caregivers across those facilities see firsthand the impact of tobacco-related diseases and illnesses.
“We know that the best way to reduce health-associated harm caused by smoking is to abstain from smoking altogether or, at a minimum, delay the start,” they said. “We also know that added flavoring in tobacco, vapor, and nicotine products entices more users and makes an otherwise objectionable taste more palatable.”
Others opposed the measure.
“I believe that such a ban would have unintended consequences for adults, mainly Black and brown people,” wrote David Daniels, a retired Bridgeport police lieutenant and community activist. “I understand that this proposed legislation is aimed at the sellers, but the laws of supply and demand could also evolve into a look into the people that process and use them if the desired effect cannot be realized.”
Andrew Haripaul, who represents several convenience and liquor store owners in Connecticut, said the losses resulting from the bill would go beyond a reduction in tax revenue for the state.
“Banning the sale of flavored vapor products could shift sales of these products from law-abiding retailers to potentially illegal sources who do not check IDs,” he said. “If traditional flavored options like menthol are not removed from the proposed sales ban, adult customers will simply drive to a neighboring state to buy their preferred products and will also purchase gasoline, grocery items and beverages while there.”
People in the cessation community, including officials with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association, opposed the measure for other reasons — they collectively said the proposal doesn’t go far enough.
“Unfortunately, [the bill] only addresses e-cigarettes and vaping products and leaves cigarettes, little cigars, big cigars, hookah and combustible tobacco products alone, and companies continue to be able to provide flavors for that,” said Bryte Johnson, Connecticut director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Action Network. “For us, that’s a deal breaker.”
The Public Health Committee has until April 1 to vote on the measure.
CT Mirror staff writer Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this story.