BOSTON – With the clock running down on Gov. Charlie Baker’s temporary vaping ban, lawmakers took steps on Wednesday to permanently ban flavored vaping and nicotine products.

The state House of Representatives approved “first-in-the-nation” legislation that will outlaw flavored vapes, including menthol and mint-flavored cigarettes, limit the nicotine content of vape pods and impose a 75% excise tax on the wholesale price of e-cigarettes. The 127-31 vote went largely along party lines, with a number of Republicans voting against it.

The measure must still be approved by the Senate before it heads to Gov. Baker’s desk for consideration.

Lawmakers who voted for the tough new restrictions cited concerns about rampant teenage use of vaping products, the state’s rising health care costs for treating lung cancers and a nationwide vaping-related illness that has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed 39, including three people in Massachusetts.

“Today we are taking up a solution to address the youth vaping epidemic that has troubled our cities and towns,” Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a speech ahead of the vote. “There are three keys to addressing youth addiction: access to flavor, price sensitivity and a strong public health response to prevent addiction in the first place.”

Vaping concerns have risen to the top of Beacon Hill’s agenda in recent weeks amid the outbreak that’s being probed by federal and state health officials.

The legislation is supported by major health organizations such as the Massachusetts Medical Society, American Lung Association and American Cancer Society, which argue that vaping companies like JUUL are trying to hook a generation of teenagers on nicotine-laden e-cigarettes such with flavors such as bubblegum, mint and mango. The sale of menthol cigarettes also has a racial dynamic, with social justice groups long accusing tobacco companies of deliberately marketing the products in minority communities.

“The easy availability of menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, flavored hookah and youth-friendly e-cigarette, candy-like flavors is causing an increase in youth tobacco use of epic proportions,” Allyson Perron Drag, government relations director at the American Heart Association of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

“The removal of all flavors from all tobacco products is essential for reducing their appeal to youth,” she added.

The American Vaping Association, which opposes the ban, said Wednesday it was “deeply disappointed” by the House vote, which it says will “steer smokers back to deadly cigarettes.”

“This is going to mean more people turning back to cigarettes and the black-market,” said Gregory Conley, the association’s president. “It will hurt, not improve, public health.”

Conley said the federal probe of the illness is pointing to illicit THC products. He said the state should be devoting its efforts to cracking down on the illegal vape pod market.

Lawmakers offered several amendments to the proposal, but most were either withdrawn or rejected in votes that went largely along party lines.

The House did adopt an amendment by Vargas that will require 30% of the tax revenue on vaping products to be used for local health and substance abuse prevention. An amendment by Republican minority leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, prohibits welfare recipients from using their electronic benefit cards to buy vaping products.

The chamber’s vote to advance a permanent ban on flavored e-cigarettes comes as the Baker administration fights in court to keep the governor’s four-month vaping ban in effect.

Baker declared a public health emergency and imposed a temporary ban on all vaping products on Sept. 24 in response to the outbreak of lung disease.

The ban was challenged by vape companies, and Baker was ordered by a Suffolk Superior Court judge to file emergency regulations in order to keep the restrictions in place until Dec. 24.

Even before the ban, the state was tightening restrictions on e-cigarettes in response to concerns about use among young people.

Last year, the state raised the legal age to buy e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, expanded the workplace smoking ban to include e-cigarettes, and barred pharmacies from selling them.

At least 165 communities – including Beverly, Gloucester, Lawrence and Newburyport – have passed laws restricting sales of e-cigarette products to tobacco and vape shops.

Retail stores have resisted the ban, arguing that banning the sale of menthol and other flavored cigarettes would hurt their businesses.

Last week, dozens of convenience store owners held a protest outside the Statehouse, where they called on Baker and lawmakers to reject the proposal.

“Elected officials like to talk about the importance of keeping government out of people’s business and letting them make their own choices ,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which opposes the bill. “By banning these products, they’re essentially saying they know better than the people who elected them.”

Hurst said flavored vapes and menthol flavored tobacco constitute a significant potion of sales for most retailers. He said a permanent ban could force some stores to shut down.

Retailers located in cities and towns along the border with New Hampshire, where flavored tobacco and vapes aren’t banned, are most at risk from losing business, he said.

“Adult consumers like to have choices,” Hurst said. “If these products are banned in Massachusetts, they’re just going to go somewhere else to find them.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

 

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