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Several proposals to ban flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes have advanced in the state Legislature, a move that vape shop owners say would put them out of business.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed two flavor ban bills, although the scope of their bans differs slightly.
The first, Senate Bill 2228, prohibits the sale of flavored products for electronic smoking devices. It also would make it unlawful to ship e-liquid products or mislabel products that contain nicotine. The only tobacco sales permitted would be for adults at retail shops in person.
The second, Senate Bill 2538, is a comprehensive ban that would prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products and mislabeling. It goes a step further by establishing fines and penalties and authorizes a court to require people caught in violation to participate in a tobacco education program and complete a tobacco use cessation program. If a minor is convicted of possession of a tobacco product or e-cigarette device, then the bill proposes having the parents select among penalty options.
Meanwhile, three floors above in the House Finance Committee hearing room, impassioned speeches were delivered in support of a flavor ban proposed in House Bill 2457.
Twelve-year-old Makayla Isaac Marquez told the House representatives that she was in elementary school when some of her classmates asked her to try a flavored vaping product. Now as a middle schooler at Moanalua Intermediate, she’s seen even more vaping among her peers, especially eighth graders.
“They constantly post about flavors and each person has to try,” she said.
Myriad flavors are offered, including mango, cotton candy and lilikoi.
Hawaii has some of the highest vaping rates among youth in the nation, according to state and federal survey data.
With one in four high schoolers admitting in surveys that they vaped at least once within the past month, Hawaii public health officials and advocates worry a new generation is addicted to nicotine in a state that has made strides in kicking cigarette smoking habits.
The House Finance Committee ultimately passed the bill unanimously. Last year, a similar proposal was killed by the same committee.
“We’re thrilled to have a bill pass in the House Finance Committee and for it to pass through unanimously,” said Jessica Yamauchi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Health Institute, which has advocated for the flavor ban. “It’s really positive that all flavor ban bills are moving through. It shows there is a lot of traction for this issue this year and our concerns about the e-cigarette problem.”
Vape shops across the country have already seen an impact on their businesses and are bracing for the potential impact of outright bans on the majority of their products.
According to a Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids fact sheet, Massachusetts became the first state to ban all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, while New Jersey last year passed a ban on flavored e-cigarette products earlier this year. In 2019, eight states issued emergency rules to temporarily ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, but some of those are under legal challenge.
Sean Anderson, the owner of Black Lava Vape shops on the Big Island, said any flavor ban would likely put every vape shop in Hawaii out of business, including his.
He estimated about 30% of his customer base has been lost since vaping related illnesses have popped up across the country. Most illnesses, now called EVALI, have been associated with the use of vaping THC or connected to products with Vitamin E acetate.
Anderson said he has had to let go of five employees who accounted for about half of his business team.
“We’re barely hanging on,” he said. “This would kill the vape industry. What else could we sell? Nobody is going to buy tobacco flavored juice.” Anderson believes such prohibitions will just encourage vapers to pick up traditional cigarette smoking again.
“What it comes down to is if they ban flavors outright, the people who have successfully stopped smoking traditional tobacco will go back to smoking traditional tobacco,” he said. “If you smoke you’re going to die and you’re going to harm other people around you with second hand smoke. That’s the alternative. If you’re going to ban flavors, you’re going to get more cigarette smokers.”
Last week, another flavor ban proposal included in Governor David Ige’s legislative package passed the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The Governor’s flavor ban proposal in Senate Bill 2903 includes the prohibition of sale of menthol flavors, something that other proposals lack.
Nearly all smokers begin the habit before they turn 21, and about 80% of youth claim the first tobacco product they used was flavored.
“Menthol, in particular, is used by the tobacco industry because it has a cooling and numbing effect and can reduce the throat irritation from smoking, thus making menthol cigarettes an appealing option for youth who are initiating tobacco use,” the bill states.
Next week, the bills will cross over to the opposite chamber and more hearings and testimony will ensue.
Yamauchi said the Hawaii Public Health Institute will follow the measures and amendments closely.
“What the Hawaii Public Health Institute supports is a comprehensive flavor ban that includes menthol to ensure that there are no loopholes for the industry to take advantage of,” said Yamauchi.
Register to attend our next Civil Cafe: Legislative Update. Panelists include House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, and Civil Beat public health reporter Eleni Gill. It’s at noon, Wednesday, March 4, in Room 329 at the Hawaii State Capitol.
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