DeLeo eyes comprehensive vaping legislation

Committee advances bill on flavored products; Raimondo takes action in RI


ON THE HEELS of the state’s new temporary ban on the sale of all vaping products, a legislative committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco and Speaker Robert DeLeo suggested the House will develop comprehensive vaping legislation.

Rep. John Mahoney, the House chairman of the Public Health Committee, said his panel made only a “couple technical changes” to the flavor ban legislation filed by Rep. Danielle Gregoire and Sen. John Keenan before unanimously voting to advance it.

“We’ve been working on the bill for months with sponsors and leadership, and we think it’s the right direction to go, period,” said Mahoney, a Worcester Democrat. He said vaping — and the national outbreak of unexplained lung illnesses associated with it — is “rapidly becoming a major public health crisis.”

Baker declared a public health emergency around vaping on Tuesday, and Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, using her authority during a declared emergency, signed one order imposing the vaping products ban and another aimed at increasing access to smoking cessation products in pharmacies. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday signed an executive order banning the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes because of their appeal to teenagers and middle school students.

Baker said his more broader ban, set to last through January 25, 2020, would allow medical experts to gather more information about the mysterious lung illnesses and the “inherent dangers of vaping both nicotine and marijuana.” He said that information will help the state develop a response that could include new regulations or legislation.

Baker said the flavor ban bill is “one of the things that we would hope would end up being part of the conversation that we would have if we need to pursue legislative answers to this.”

Mahoney called Baker’s move “very strong.” He said he doesn’t know when lawmakers might act on the bill his committee approved Wednesday, but said now is a “good time to get ahead of” vaping before it becomes as prevalent in society as traditional smoking once was.

“The companies, they’ve got 70 years of practice of trying to skirt public health policy,” Mahoney said. “They’ve offered vaping as some sort of much less harmful way to take in nicotine than smoking. A lot of people were just kind of caught off-guard and nobody really knew what the negative ramifications were, but now they’re becoming quite clear quite quickly.”

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz pointed to Baker’s actions as validation for the Legislature’s decision not to include a proposed tax on e-cigarettes in the annual state budget, which was finalized in July. The tax was favored by the governor and the Senate.

“The governor’s steps that he took just recently and the need for a more comprehensive bill is one of the reasons why we did not include it in the budget, budget process, this past year,” Michlewitz said.

“It wasn’t just about taxation,” he said. “We knew there was a much more comprehensive need for this overall industry and that’s what I think we’re going to be looking at going forward.”

DeLeo also said the next step for the House is to develop “a comprehensive piece of legislation, in terms of how we’re going to control and how we’re going to regulate vaping.”

The speaker said he’s heard from a lot of superintendents about vaping in schools, and said a ban on flavored products “is important.” But he also said he’s heard concerns about how a ban might give rise to black market vaping products.

“That’s why it’s important when we’re taking a look at this that we take more of a long-term comprehensive look in terms of what the rules and regulations are going to be in terms of vaping,” DeLeo said after a caucus with House Democrats.

Bharel, the public health commissioner, was in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, testifying on e-cigarettes before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

In her written testimony, Bharel said a 2019 study on flavored tobacco product restrictions in Massachusetts found that the use of both flavored and unflavored products decreased in communities with restrictions, while youth usage rates increased in communities without restrictions.

She said about 67 percent of the state’s population lives in one of the 161 cities and towns that restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products at the local level.

“While this is a strong way to protect our youth from exposure and access to these products, we have also realized a flavored product restriction that excludes mint, menthol and wintergreen products, leaves many people behind – people who historically have been targeted by the tobacco industry with these products,” Bharel said. “We are working to correct this and to date, 13 municipalities have included mint, menthol, and wintergreen in their flavored tobacco product restrictions.”

After Baker announced the temporary e-cigarette ban, several advocates — representing groups including the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and MASSPIRG — said the next step for Massachusetts policymakers should be passing a permanent ban of all flavored tobacco products.

The Vapor Technology Association, a trade group representing the vapor and e-cigarette industry, has launched a page on its website where consumers can send a message to “Tell Governor Baker NOT To Ban Flavors.”

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“In addition to making it more difficult for the more than 750,000 adult smokers in Massachusetts to quit traditional cigarettes, such a ban would have a meaningful adverse economic impact on an industry that contributes more than 2,500 jobs and more than $130 million in wages to the state of Massachusetts,” he said. “We stand ready to work with Governor Baker on thoughtful and effective regulation.”

Matt Murphy contributed to this report.