CHATHAM – Taking action ahead of a new state law set to go into effect June 1, the board of health last week approved regulations banning the retail sale of all flavored tobacco products in town.
Last summer the board banned flavored tobacco sales in regular retail stores, but allowed the sales in adult-only smoke shops. The latest revision of the town's tobacco control regulations, slated to go into effect Jan. 1, prohibits all flavored tobacco sales, including in adult smoke shops.
The ban applies to all menthol and mint cigarettes, including brands such as Newport and Kool, as well as flavored cigars, chewing tobacco and vaping products.
“This means that we can have as many tobacco shops in town as people want to apply for, but none of them will be able to sell any flavored tobacco products of any type, cigarettes or vaping products or cigars, anything with mint,” Chairman John Beckley said at the board's Dec. 2 meeting.
“We're a little ahead on this, but it's the same as what the state's doing,” added Health Agent Judy Giorgio.
In September, Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order banning the sale of all vaping products for four months after a number of people took ill, and several died, after using vaping products. The ban is set to expire Dec. 11, when the state public health council will meet to adopt regulations to enforce the new law. At that time stores can sell unflavored or tobacco-flavored vaping products only.
Again citing public health, Baker signed legislation two weeks ago restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products to licensed smoking bars for on-site consumption only as of June 1. Under Chatham's revised tobacco control regulations, smoking bars are prohibited. There are currently no adult-only retail tobacco shops in town. Giorgio said the department had one inquiry about obtaining a tobacco shop license, but the person was unable to lease a space.
The new state law bans the sale of flavored vaping products immediately, imposed a 75 percent excise tax on so-called e-cigarettes, and requires that health insurance companies offer free smoking cessation counseling and cover the cost of FDA-approved nicotine withdrawal products such as patches or gum.
Officials say that menthol and other mint-flavored cigarettes and tobacco products are designed to hook young people on smoking, an approach that's been followed by the vaping industry. D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said young people are not as likely to smoke unflavored tobacco or vaping products.
“If tomorrow M&Ms were flavorless, I'm not sure I'd bother to eat them,” he told the board. Bob Collett, program director of the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Control Program, said he's heard from school officials that since the September vaping ban, there has been less use of e-cigarettes among students, especially middle schoolers.
“It's having an effect,” he said. “So we can be confident in the actions that we're taking, that there is an impact.”
There are six lawsuits against cities and towns in Massachusetts that, like Chatham last summer, prohibited the sale of flavored vaping products. Wilson said he anticipates a lawsuit being filed against the new state law as well. With Chatham implementing restrictions ahead of the state law, it's always possible the town could get sued by retailers or the tobacco or vaping industries. “I can never say you're not going to get sued,” he told the board, but added that the new regulations are “sturdy” and “solid.”
Filing suit over these sorts of regulations is a longstanding tobacco industry practice, Wilson said. But he urged the board to move ahead despite that possibility because “you'll be protecting your local public way ahead of the game. Because their idea is if it delays it a couple of years, they can get more kids addicted to menthol and mint” tobacco products, he said.
While Chatham is the first town in the area to prohibit all flavored tobacco sales, other towns are considering the same move, Wilson said.
“Everybody's taking notice,” he said.
According to the governor's office, since September there have been 278 reports of suspected vaping-related lung injuries, and 164 cases were investigated. Three people are confirmed to have died of vaping-related lung injuries.