Pedro Vazquez, chair of the South Portland Human Rights Commission, discusses why it is important for the city council to vote to end the sale of flavored tobacco products. Dan Cashman

SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents gathered at the South Portland Community Center Monday afternoon to advocate for the city council to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in the city. The meeting follows a city council workshop on Oct. 11 discussing an ordinance that would ban such sales. Students, parents, and community members gathered to speak out against the dangerous marketing tactics of tobacco companies and encourage the council toward a ban.

“In South Portland, we’re here because the city council is considering ending the sale of flavored tobacco throughout the city,” said BJ McCollister, campaign manager for Flavors Hook Kids Maine. “And if passed, they — like their neighbors in Portland as well as Brunswick and Bangor — will be putting the health and safety of our kids ahead of big tobacco profits.”

Individuals with concerns spoke. “I am a parent of six young people, actually,” said Pedro Vasquez, chair of the South Portland Human Rights Commission. “Three of whom are in our South Portland school district, and you know, I see how specifically my children, as young persons of color, are targeted by these huge tobacco industries. To basically have them as replacement smokers.

“The science shows us that it’s harmful, it’s absolutely detrimental. And I’m here to speak out against it because their methods, their tactics, and the way in which they do business is disgusting to me in their attempts to hook kids on a lifetime of addiction to protect profits. And so, I hope that our South Portland Human Rights commission as well as South Portland City Council takes action to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in my community.”

Concerns about flavored tobacco ranged from parents to students. “My friends, classmates and teammates who vape are addicted, period,” said Eliza House, a senior at South Portland High School. “Because of that addiction, some people have lost focus. Others have lost interest in sports or music. And others just cannot make it through class without going to the bathroom for a vape break.”

Rebecca Boulos, South Portland resident and executive director of the Maine Public Health Association, said, “We hear about the effects of flavored tobacco products on kids from their classmates, family members, coaches, and school administrators. They talk about kids becoming more isolated, detached from their friends, and having trouble focusing in class. They talk about kids not being able to play sports or do other activities they enjoy.”


Those gathered discussed the harmful techniques of tobacco companies to market to kids to gain addicted customers for life. “We see e-cigarettes in more than 15,000 kid-friendly flavors that taste like mint, candy, and fruit including rocky road, cotton candy, and winter menthol,” said Boulos. “We know that 95 percent of adults that smoke start before they are 21 years old. Tobacco companies know that, too. That’s why these products are sold in packaging that looks like treats from the ice cream truck. In other words, these flavored products are not intended for adults.”

Boulos also discussed how tobacco companies target kids in marginalized communities, and how menthol cigarettes are also common but more dangerous. “While we hear a lot about e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes are even more dangerous,” said Boulos. “Indeed, 50 percent of youth who ever tried smoking started with a menthol flavoring. Why? Because menthol flavoring masks the harsh taste of tobacco. It also numbs the throat, making it easier to inhale more deeply and causing even more severe lung damage.

“The tobacco industry has a long and lethal history of targeting kids in already marginalized communities with flavored products. Data support all of these observations. Tobacco companies have access to these same data. And yet, they keep pushing flavored tobacco products for the same reason we’re trying to stop it. Because flavors hook kids.”

Many public health organizations and businesses have signed onto the effort.

A first read of the proposed ordinance is scheduled for December, with an expected vote to follow. If passed, South Portland would be the fourth community to ban flavored tobacco products in Maine, after Portland, Brunswick and Bangor.

“We are here because students are on the front line of tobacco’s attacks,” said McCollister. “In Brunswick, where the sale of flavored tobacco products ended earlier this year, the Times Record reported that fewer people are vaping in schools. And that’s what this is all about. We won’t stand for tobacco companies marketing to our children to start a lifetime of addiction. And we hope and know that the South Portland City Council will agree.”

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