Vermont lawmakers debate banning flavored tobacco products

A bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and vaping products, is facing strong opposition from the tobacco industry and some retailers at the Vermont Statehouse. The bill, which has been years in the works, aims to reduce the appeal of tobacco products to young people and address the health disparities caused by tobacco use among certain populations.

Health advocates say that flavored tobacco products are designed to hook new users, especially youth, and make it harder for them to quit. They cite studies that show that nearly 80% of youth who have ever used tobacco started with a flavored product. They also point out that menthol cigarettes are disproportionately used by African Americans, LGBTQ+ people, and low-income people, and contribute to higher rates of tobacco-related diseases and deaths among these groups.

Dr. Mark Levine, the Vermont health commissioner, testified in favor of the bill, saying that it would have a significant impact on public health and save lives. He said that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in Vermont, killing more than 1,000 people each year and costing the state more than $348 million in health care expenses. He also said that Vermont has one of the highest rates of youth vaping in the nation, with 30% of high school students reporting using e-cigarettes in 2019.

Tobacco industry and retailers oppose the bill

The bill, however, is facing fierce resistance from the tobacco industry and some retailers, who argue that it would infringe on the rights of adult consumers, hurt small businesses, and create a black market for flavored tobacco products. They also claim that the bill would have little effect on youth tobacco use, as they would find other ways to access the products or switch to unflavored ones.

Tom Briant, the executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, testified against the bill, saying that it would violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and invite legal challenges. He said that the bill would create an uneven playing field for Vermont retailers, who would lose customers to neighboring states or online sellers that offer flavored tobacco products. He also said that the bill would harm the state’s revenue, as tobacco taxes account for more than $70 million annually.

Jim Harrison, the president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, also opposed the bill, saying that it would put an additional burden on retailers who are already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that many of his members rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat, and that losing flavored products would reduce their profits and force some of them to close. He also said that the bill would not address the root causes of youth tobacco use, such as peer pressure, stress, and mental health issues.

Lawmakers weigh the pros and cons

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Virginia Lyons, a Democrat from Chittenden County, has passed the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and is now in the Senate Finance Committee. Lyons said that she is confident that the bill has enough support to pass the Senate, but acknowledged that it faces a tougher battle in the House, where similar bills have stalled in the past.

Lyons said that she believes that the bill is a matter of public health and social justice, and that it would benefit the state in the long run. She said that she is not swayed by the arguments of the tobacco industry and retailers, who she said are putting their profits over the health of Vermonters. She also said that she is open to working with other lawmakers to address their concerns and find a compromise.

However, some lawmakers are skeptical about the bill and its potential consequences. Sen. Randy Brock, a Republican from Franklin County, said that he is concerned that the bill would create a black market for flavored tobacco products, which could pose more dangers to consumers and law enforcement. He also said that he is worried that the bill would infringe on the personal choices of adults, who should be able to decide what products they want to use.

Brock said that he is not convinced that the bill would have a significant impact on youth tobacco use, as he thinks that education and prevention programs are more effective. He also said that he is not sure that the bill would address the health disparities among different groups, as he thinks that there are other factors that influence tobacco use, such as culture, income, and access to health care.

The bill’s fate is uncertain

The bill’s fate is uncertain, as it faces a tight deadline to pass both chambers before the end of the legislative session in May. The bill also faces the possibility of a veto from Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, who has expressed reservations about the bill in the past. Scott has said that he is concerned about the impact of the bill on the state’s economy, especially on small businesses and border towns. He has also said that he is not sure that the bill would achieve its intended goals, and that he would prefer to focus on education and prevention efforts.

The bill’s supporters, however, are hopeful that they can persuade Scott to sign the bill, or at least not veto it. They say that they have the backing of the majority of Vermonters, who support banning flavored tobacco products, according to a recent poll. They also say that they have the evidence to show that the bill would reduce youth tobacco use, improve public health, and save lives. They say that they are ready to fight for the bill until the end, and that they will not give up on their mission to protect Vermont’s children and vulnerable populations from the harms of flavored tobacco products.

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