Maine could join a handful of states in banning the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavorings for other tobacco products, including vaping devices and flavored cigars, if a bill before the Legislature advances.

The Health and Human Services Committee took testimony Friday from a wide array of public health advocates, doctors, dentists, students and former smokers who supported the ban. They said it will save lives, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars now spent on tobacco-related diseases in Maine.

Opponents, however, said the ban would only force the sale of menthol cigarettes or flavored vaping products underground or to neighboring New Hampshire, where the products would still be available.

“If there is anything I could do differently in my life it would have been to never ever have taken that first drag off that first cigarette,” said former smoker Darlene Huntress of Hollis. She and others said the tobacco industry’s use of sweet and fruity flavorings like cotton candy, banana and the like is clear evidence of efforts to hook children on nicotine, the psychoactive chemical that makes tobacco addictive.

“I’m disgusted because the tobacco industry is barely trying to hide the fact they are cultivating a new younger generation of addicted lifelong customers,” Huntress said.

The bill, L.D. 1550, sponsored by Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, has the support of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“Tobacco use puts our children’s health and future at risk,” said Meyer, a registered nurse. “It’s an addiction that begins in adolescence and too often ends in early death. Smoking kills more people than any other preventable illness.”

Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, a co-sponsor of the bill, said Maine has the 11th highest rate of smoking related cancer in the country. Davis said his home county of Piscataquis has the state’s highest smoking rate among adults in Maine, with one in five adults there being smokers.

Davis, himself a former smoker, said he watched his father and his brother both die of lung cancer and believes his mother also died as result of all the second-hand smoke she breathed in. He said tobacco-related illnesses in Maine cost $800 million a year, with about half of that being paid for by government-funded health insurance programs.

“That’s just the monetary loss, that has nothing to say about the anxiety and the anguish and the sorrow, the suffering, the pain and everything that people have to go through because they are addicted,” Davis said. “I remember my father sitting on the edge of his bed and coughing and coughing until he was all out of breath and he could make only a tiny, tiny noise. My mother gasping for breath. My brother suffering. I remember it very well.”

Davis has previously championed tougher restrictions on tobacco in Maine, including sponsoring a bill in 2017 that raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. The federal government followed suit in 2020, raising the minimum age to 21 nationwide.

He said opponents of the measure will argue that tobacco is a legal product and that adults have the right to choose for themselves whether or not to use it.

“When I was younger and smoking two packs a day, it didn’t feel like a choice,” Davis said. “Losing a father and a brother and a mother to lung cancer and secondhand smoke. And I look back on it all and I certainly didn’t have any choice in the matter.”

Only two states, Massachusetts and California, have completely banned all flavored tobacco products, while a handful of others have banned flavored vaping products only. This month, the U.S. House passed a bill that would place a federal ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol.

In 2019, Congress passed a law that raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. In 2020, the administration of former President Donald Trump issued rules that prohibit fruit, candy, mint and dessert flavors from small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes like Juul. The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, also passed a ban on flavored tobacco products in 2020, but the measure never cleared the Republican-controlled Senate.

And in late April, the federal Food and Drug Administration under President Biden announced it would begin the process of banning the sale of menthol cigarettes nationwide. The announcement follows a lawsuit filed by anti-smoking and medical groups last summer to force the FDA to finally make a decision on menthol, alleging that regulators had “unreasonably delayed” responding to a 2013 petition seeking to ban the flavor, The Associated Press reported.

Opponents to the bill in Maine included groups representing convenience stores, tobacco shops, and cigarette and cigar industry associations. They said the ban would only force sales to New Hampshire, while costing Maine jobs and sales tax revenue it collects from the products.

Christopher Jackson, an Augusta-based lobbyist speaking for the Cigar Association of America, said it was ironic that Maine’s burgeoning recreational marijuana industry was moving full-speed ahead with an array of edible products, including candies like gummy bears, and there was no move afoot to stop that.

Jackson pointed to a recent Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald report on the edible marijuana industry.

“And if you haven’t read it, I hope you go pick it up, and see if you don’t pick up on some irony of this hearing to ban flavored cigars, a product that the underaged population does not use as a rule, while other industries whip up cannabis-infused goodies like gingerbread flavored or sea salt caramel bonbons, pumpkin cheesecake and chocolate-dipped strawberry French macaroon edibles,” Jackson said.

The bill will next be the subject of work session before the committee before it is sent to the full Legislature for consideration later this year.

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