CHATHAM – The board of health will hold a public hearing next month on a proposed regulation banning the sale of flavored tobacco and electronic cigarette products.
The proposal was initially put before the board by Monomoy Regional High School students, who were particularly focused on e-cigarette, or vaping, products. The students conducted a survey at the school and found that 35 percent of students had tried vaping and half of those were regular users. Eighty percent of students had seen vaping happening in the school and many avoided bathrooms because of it. Even though sales of these products are restricted to adults over 21 years of age, most kids get them from friends or buy them on the internet, spending $10 to $40 a week.
“We think this will have the greatest impact on reducing the availability of vape products to minors,” student Drew Ryan told the board May 6. Vaping is the most common way for kids to start smoking today, and those who vape are four times more likely to become smokers, he said. Tobacco companies refer to teens as “replacement smokers.”
“To them we are supposed to replace the older generation of smokers,” Ryan said. “We do not want to become the replacement smokers.”
Bob Collett, director of the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment's Tobacco Control Program, said 95 percent of tobacco marketing dollars are directed at kids 14 years old and younger, who can get hooked on vaping products in as little as two weeks.
“The use of these has pretty much reversed all the gains that we've made with traditional tobacco smoking among young people, the rate of which was down to about 6.5 percent here on the Cape and across Massachusetts,” he said. Thirteen percent of Massachusetts residents smoke, he added.
Vaping products are available on convenience and liquor stores and online and come in 8,000 flavors, he said, mint and mango being the most popular. School officials are “vexed” because unlike smoking cigarettes, vaping leaves little odor or trace. Kids also think they are harmless, which is not true, said Collett. One vaping pod can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, he said.
“This is a true public health crisis,” said Collett. “It' a very serious problem.” Health Agent Judy Giorgio said the state department of public health is providing a tool kit to help towns and schools combat the problem and is taking the issue seriously.
Flavored cigarette sales were banned in the state in 2009, with the exception of mint, menthol and wintergreen, said D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association. More recently, 147 cities and towns have restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products to adult-only smoke shops, but also exempting mint, menthol and wintergreen. Five communities have banned all flavored tobacco sales, and the first, Somerville, was sued and a decision is pending, he said. Menthol cigarettes are the choice of about 30 percent of smokers, Collett said.
Board of Health Chairman John Beckley said the board could prohibit all flavored tobacco except mint, menthol and wintergreen, or take it a step further and ban all flavored tobacco products from retail sales except in licensed adult-only tobacco or smoke shops (there are none in Chatham). He favored the latter, saying vaping has created an “epidemic.”
“I quite hope, as a public health person, that the day comes when the government simply bans these products, certainly all vaping products,” he said.
“I think if we help just one kid in Chatham, it's worth it,” added board member Ronald Broman.
Under such a health regulation regular tobacco products would still be available for sale in town. Collett said there are a number of adult-only smoke shops in nearby towns, including Harwich and Orleans, where flavored tobacco products are available.
The board set a public hearing for June 17, and will likely bring the draft regulation to the board of selectmen on June 10, said Giorgio.