Put the menthol cigarette ban on hold

Now is not the time to forego $230m in tax revenue

WHEN THE 2020 CALENDAR flips to June, thousands of small businesses in will be brought to their knees when the Commonwealth will send over $230 million in desperately needed tax revenue to our New England neighbors.  June 1 is when Massachusetts becomes the first, and only, state in the country to make the sale of menthol, mint, and wintergreen cigarettes and smokeless tobacco illegal, leaving up to 300,000 adults with little choice but to travel out of state to find these adult products.

Despite dire warnings of social and economic consequences, particularly in urban communities, the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed the retail ban into law late last year.  While some considered these admonitions debatable six months ago, the realities of a post COVID-19 world make them undeniable, more ominous, and broader reaching.

At a time when health experts and governors are strongly discouraging travel and recommending 14-day self-quarantining for those crossing state lines, Massachusetts adults who prefer menthol cigarettes and mint/wintergreen smokeless tobacco will have little choice but to travel out of state or tap the black market to obtain these products.

The idea that these people will quit on June 1 is unrealistic anti-tobacco propaganda. Instead, it is far more likely they will drive to Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and especially New Hampshire, where border retailers have already seen 1,000 percent increases in vape sales since a September 25 ban went into effect.  For those unable to travel, rest assured the unregulated, untaxed black market, sourced from states as far away as New York and Virginia and run by criminals, stands at the ready. With over 56,000 confirmed COVID cases, one of the highest in the country, and hospitals at peak capacity, now is not the time to be sending people on interstate tobacco runs or to city alleyways.

Losing these customers, along with current COVID-related financial wreckage, will mean the end for many convenience stores across the Commonwealth, particularly independent stores serving urban and racially diverse communities where menthol cigarette sales represent 35 percent of revenue or more.  Forty percent of all small format tobacco licensees, over 2,200 stores, operate in Gateway Cities and sell a disproportionate share of menthol cigarettes. If these stores were to close, it would mean more than just vacant storefronts and jobs, it would mean food deserts and fewer retailers accepting SNAP and EBT benefits at a time when the Department of Transitional Assistance is searching for ways to support their clients. Some may casually dismiss convenience stores among all the commercial carnage, but these small businesses have persevered over the past several weeks, at great risk to their own personal health and financial detriment, so that they could continue serving their communities.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts will lose over $230 million in sales and excise tax revenue, not including other sales taxes generated through the sale of other items bought in concert with tobacco. Experts project a $4.4 billion revenue shortfall in Massachusetts in fiscal year 2021 and unemployment over 18 percent.  We no longer have the luxury of being cavalier with critical tax revenue, particularly when it represents close to a quarter billion dollars that can be used toward pressing health care issues, education, social services, and general economic recovery.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Shaer

Director, New England Convenience Stores and Energy Marketers Association
Needless to say, there wasn’t any way the governor could have foreseen the current situation when he signed the law that made menthol, mint, and wintergreen illegal to sell. Fortunately, the prohibition doesn’t go into effect for a few more weeks providing Baker, and legislative leadership, time to delay the implementation of the ban until such time it is safe to travel and thousands of convenience stores have their financial feet under them once again.

Jonathan Shaer is director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association.