Is menthol cigarette ban still a smart move?

Tax take falls $32m in Mass., rises in neighboring states

LAST NOVEMBER, amid a national outbreak of vaping-related illnesses, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including mint and menthol cigarettes.

The measure was hailed by public health advocates as a life-saving measure to stop young people from becoming addicted to tobacco. But convenience store owners and some lawmakers panned the menthol ban as an overreach that would drive store owners out of business. The debate had racial overtones since menthol products are particularly popular in the black community.

The ban went into effect June 1, and a protest by store owners on Thursday made clear that the debate isn’t over yet.

At a press conference outside the State House, convenience store owners said they were seeing a 30 percent drop in sales since the ban went into effect, and some stores are laying off employees, MassLive reported. The store owners also raised concerns that people were reselling illegally obtained cigarettes on the street.

According to the Boston Herald, the store owners pointed to photographs taken by a private detective depicting street-level black market sales, and said similar sales are happening across the state.

Where the black-market sellers are getting the cigarettes appears to be from neighboring states. The State House News Service reported earlier this week that cigarette sales were down by 24 percent in Massachusetts in August – but up by 65 percent in New Hampshire and 17 percent in Rhode Island during the same month, with huge spikes in sales of menthol cigarettes. (That also has major revenue implications for Massachusetts, which saw cigarette excise taxes drop off by nearly $32 million in the first three months of the ban, the News Service reported.)

Just this week, Attorney General Maura Healey charged a Sharon man with running an illegal cigarette operation out of Norwood. Ali Houdroge allegedly imported tens of thousands of dollars worth of tobacco products into the state each week, without paying taxes, to sell them in retail stores across Worcester, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The Legislature is considering a bill that would suspend the ban on menthol cigarettes for a year to mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19 – though the bill was introduced based on a constituent request and there is little indication lawmakers will take it up.

Public health advocates continue to support the ban. Marc Hymovitz, Massachusetts director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement that by preventing addiction, the ban can save the state $4 billion in smoking-related health care costs annually. “Not only does this law protect kids from starting on the path to a lifetime of tobacco addiction, but it protects population groups that we know Big Tobacco continually and intentionally targets with aggressive advertising campaigns and other predatory tactics, including African Americans, Latinos, and the LGBTQ community,” Hymovitz said.