The Portland City Council is considering a sweeping ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products. If they go through with it, they’ll prohibit convenience stores, grocery stores, and tobacco shops from selling menthol cigarettes, mint, and wintergreen moist snuff, flavored smokeless tobacco, flavored cigars, flavored pipe tobacco, and flavored electronic cigarettes.

On its face, this may seem like a good idea; make it difficult for tobacco customers to buy their products, and they’ll stop using them. But it doesn’t work like that.

As has been the case around the country where local governments pass flavored tobacco bans, customers will go to a neighboring town or state. From Portland, they’ll go to South Portland or Scarborough or, as tobacco customers did after the Massachusetts ban, to New Hampshire. That’s where their favorite menthols, cigars, pipe tobacco, chew, and vapes will continue to be sold. For those not willing to travel, they’ll get their products online or illegally from the black market.

The result of this uninformed and flawed policy? Reduced tax revenues, decimated law-abiding mom and pop businesses, increased criminal activity, and, ironically, it does nothing to prevent youth initiation or tobacco use – the main goal governments use to consider bans.

I have worked for Maine Smoke Shops for more than two decades. Over the years, thanks to education and more public awareness of the risks of smoking, we’ve seen the number of people who smoke decrease dramatically. According to Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control  surveys and reports, the U.S. adult smoking rate, at 14.4 percent, is the lowest since the government began keeping track in 1965.  Only 4 percent smoke menthol. Adult smoking rates for all groups are declining steadily, irrespective of race and ethnicity differences. Yet anti-tobacco advocates continue to point to outdated data and marketing campaigns from decades ago to scare local officials into passing unwarranted bans.

These local bans typically include menthol cigarettes, yet 96.7 percent of youth don’t smoke. Even fewer young people, less than 2 percent, have smoked a menthol cigarette (even a puff) in the past 30 days. According to the CDC, the number of teens using vape is higher but also decreasing on both a national and state level. Education works. Bans don’t. And studies show they could have the opposite intended effect. Just look at San Francisco’s flavored tobacco ban. Research revealed young people reduced their illegal use of vapor products, but they were also twice as likely to pick up smoking traditional cigarettes. How is this good for public health?

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Over the years, we have invested thousands of dollars in age-verification technology to ensure we are compliant with the law. Beyond our ethical obligation to protect our youth from age-restricted products, there are steep penalties for selling to minors, ranging from hefty fines to loss of license. Tobacco is our business, so the risk is just too high not to take it seriously. We have a zero-tolerance policy. If any employee knowingly sells a tobacco product to a minor, they will be fired immediately.

Not only will a citywide ban on flavored tobacco products decimate our business, but it will have absolutely no impact on youth vaping or smoking. They will simply continue to buy from adults who are willing to break the law. They will also go to online sources found on popular social media apps and send them directly to their homes.

The only people impacted by this ban will be local, law-abiding tobacco retailers and community convenience stores with exemplary compliance rates. It is frustrating and disheartening that they would threaten local businesses to score political points and make a statement.

If they really believe Portland has a problem, then there are various options they could implement, starting with investing in education. Targeting retailers like us with no history of selling to minors or marketing to certain races, ethnicities, or social groups is irresponsible, dishonest, and destructive.


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