One year after concluding a successful campaign to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21 across Massachusetts, anti-smoking advocates are now zeroing in on flavored tobacco products like those popular with electronic cigarette users.
Invoking comparisons to the "Joe Camel'' campaign that critics accused R.J. Reynolds of using to entice young smokers in the past, supporters of the bill claim the flavored pods have been aggressively marketed to minors by the industry, helping to fuel a surge of adolescent vaping that the higher legal age for tobacco purchases has so far done little to abate.
"We know that for every adult that picks up an e-cigarette device, six youths are getting their hands on it," said Rep. Danielle Gregoire, a Marlborough Democrat.
Gregoire and Democratic Sen. John Keenan, of Quincy, are the lead sponsors of the legislation that, if passed, would make Massachusetts the first state to outlaw sales of flavored tobacco products. Hawaii considered a similar ban but abandoned it.
Teen vaping is booming, according to several surveys including one released last December by the National Institutes of Health. That survey showed twice as many high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018 compared to the prior year, and that more than 1 in 10 eighth graders had also acknowledged vaping nicotine in the past 12 months.
Opponents of the ban include the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, which contends that retailers are being made scapegoats for the youth vaping epidemic even while most stores in the region have strong records of enforcing customer age restrictions.
E-cigarettes typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable aerosol and are generally viewed as less harmful than regular cigarettes. Yet health experts say nicotine still poses a significant risk for developing brains, and reliable scientific research on the long-term effects of vaping on children is sparse.
"Driving 120 miles an hour is unsafe. Driving 90 miles an hour is safer. But they are both unsafe," said Keenan.
Juul Labs announced a series of steps last November to curb youth access to its products. The California-based company with by far the e-cigarette industry's highest market share said it was suspending the distribution of mango and some other fruit or candy flavors to convenience stores and other traditional retailers, while keeping them available to online customers.
Juul also said it would not sell to any under-21 customers _ even in states that have not raised the tobacco age _ and reduced its social media presence by closing its Facebook and Instagram accounts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently proposed guidelines that would limit the sales of flavored products with the most appeal to children to retail outlets that verify customers' age upon entry or have a separate, age-restricted area for vaping products.
The proposal for a broader prohibition in Massachusetts - only licensed smoking bars would be exempt under the bill - faces an uncertain future after a hearing this past week by the Legislature's public health committee. Backers include Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office launched a broad investigation of the e-cigarette industry last year, but other state leaders, including Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, have yet to weigh in on the measure.
The Legislature is also considering an excise tax on e-cigarettes as part of ongoing budget negotiations.
The New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association is urging lawmakers to instead focus on stronger regulation of online tobacco and nicotine sales. It also questions why Massachusetts is among the few states where it's illegal to sell tobacco to minors, but not illegal for minors to possess tobacco. That paradox, said Jonathan Shaer, the group's executive director, sends a message to teens that it's OK to "smoke `em if you got `em."
Students who came to the Statehouse to advocate for the bill described rampant vaping among classmates, often in bathrooms or other places on school grounds.
Matt Murphy said he became addicted to e-cigarettes in high school after using flavored pods.
"Vaping affects nearly every facet of student life," said Murphy, who will be a junior at University of Massachusetts-Lowell this fall. "Banning flavors is only the beginning, but it would be a great beginning."