The Marion Board of Health, which for months has been working towards banning flavored tobacco and nicotine products, is considering an attempt to classify menthol cigarettes as flavored tobacco in the tentative bylaw.
On September 26, Dennis Lane, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Retailing, tried to convince the BOH that any move to ban flavored tobacco products would hurt local retailers, discriminate against groups that smoke menthol cigarettes, and is, in general, unfair.
“The proposed tobacco regulations are confusingly inconsistent with Marion’s high standards for the regulation of legal, adult-only products and the protection of public health for both minors and adults,” said Lane.
Lane, during a meeting of the Marion Board of Selectmen in August, gave a similar presentation to the selectmen. He said that tobacco regulations, including flavored tobacco regulations, are incongruous with alcohol regulations. Even though minors can’t buy tobacco, they can smoke and possess it, while with alcohol minors can neither buy nor possess it. And as for banning flavors … why tobacco and not alcohol, he asked.
“The approach to regulating alcohol is appropriately stringent and prohibits minors’ possession and use of alcohol, but rightly recognizes that adults have a right to purchase and enjoy flavored products that are only legal for sale to adults,” said Lane. “The approach being proposed toward tobacco continues to allow minors to purchase, possess, and use tobacco products, flavored or not, but makes it illegal for adults to purchase legal-flavored products.”
Furthermore, the board’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes specifically targets black smokers, of which 88 percent smoke menthol cigarettes, said Lane.
“As written, the proposed regulations are discriminatory, unfairly banning products that are preferred by minority adult consumers while preserving the products that are preferred by white adult consumers,” said Lane.
Continuing, Lane emphasized, “…All you are proposing is the elimination of a mature adult’s right to purchase a legal product in Marion.”
“Let me be clear,” Lane said. “I am not suggesting that any cigarettes are good for anyone. What I hope you realize is that your proposed regulations do not, in any way, protect minors from accessing and using menthol or any other cigarette or tobacco product. Again, all you are proposing is the elimination of a mature adult’s right to purchase a legal product in Marion.”
Local liquor store proprietor Mark Riley, one of four in Marion who holds a license to sell tobacco, said that even though he does not sell ‘flavored’ tobacco products such as cigars or electronic cigarettes including the flavored liquid the consumer inhales or ‘vapes,’ banning menthol cigarettes would hurt his business.
“I’m afraid that if menthol was taken away … I could potentially lose a lottery sale or another sale … and they’ll just run down to [somewhere else] down the street.”
According to Riley, around 60 percent of those who buy smokes from him also buy milk, candy bars, newspapers, and other items for sale at his store.
“What I don’t want to have happen is … I don’t want to become an unintended consequence … if you take something away that is a catalyst for my entire business.” He continued, “I would hate to see menthol added to [the flavored tobacco ban]. I think there are a lot of unintended consequences that people can’t quite measure.”
Riley cautioned the board against passing public health regulations that could potentially affect commerce in town, and he asked what the board and the community could do to actually keep kids from smoking.
“To do anything that would hurt business that wouldn’t necessarily hurt kids,” said Riley, “I don’t think we should do anything to restrict adults from buying what they want to buy if it doesn’t help kids.”
Lane urged the board to reconsider banning flavored tobacco, saying flavors are the future of “the industry,” and an effective way to get smokers to switch from harmful combustible tobacco products to a possible less harmful flavored electronic nicotine product.
“And don’t discriminate,” said Lane. “Treat all adults … no matter the demographic, treat them the same.”
Board of Health member Betsy Dunn took offense to Lane’s discrimination argument.
“I think it’s unconscionable to make a racial issue out of it,” said Dunn. “That’s not why we did it, that’s not why we’re doing it.”
Chairman John Howard said he appreciated the discussion, saying, “It’s been informative, I’ve enjoyed it.” He thanked both Lane and Riley for attending.
After adjournment, Dunn further discussed her distaste for the argument that a menthol cigarette ban would be discriminatory to minorities.
“Why do they always have to make something racial?” said Dunn. “I find that unconscionable.”
“Play the race card,” Howard said.
“You play the race card because then people will be afraid to do the right thing,” said Dunn.
The next regular meeting of the Marion Board of Health will likely be scheduled for October 10 at 4:30 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Board of Health
By Jean Perry