BOSTON — Anyone caught bringing untaxed e-cigarettes into the state could face hefty fines and seizure of their vehicle under a proposed ban on flavored vaping products that's working its way through Beacon Hill.
The penalties are tucked into first-in-the-nation legislation approved Wednesday by the state House of Representatives. The bill outlaws flavored vapes, including menthol and mint-flavored cigarettes; limits the nicotine content of vape pods; and imposes a 75% excise tax on the wholesale price of e-cigarettes.
Vaping industry officials have blasted the legislation as government overreach and warned that it will drive people to buy products on the black-market or in other states.
But the proposed penalties for violating the rules are drawing fresh condemnation from the vaping community and Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill.
"Nobody should have their car taken away by the police for buying flavored vaping products to quit smoking," said Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association. "This is what happens when legislators rush to pass knee-jerk laws."
Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, said the harsh penalties are "one of the many reasons" he and 30 other lawmakers, mostly Republicans, voted against the proposal.
"I think it's patently unfair," Mirra said Thursday. "People are not going to stop vaping or smoking menthol cigarettes just because we banned it."
Under the penalties, anyone caught bringing untaxed vaping products into the state could be fined $5,000 for a first offense and up to $25,000 for multiple violations. The provisions allow police to seize untaxed vaping products as well as a "motor vehicle, boat or airplane in which the electronic nicotine delivery systems are transported."
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, noted the sanctions mirror penalties for bringing untaxed tobacco and cigars into the state.
To be sure, sanctions for the illegal importation of alcohol, taxed or untaxed, are equally stringent. Violators face fines up to $2,500 and six months in prison.
Conley said the way the bill passed by the House is written, anyone caught bringing even a small amount of untaxed vape products into the state could be punished.
"The laws on untaxed alcohol and tobacco importation are generally very clear about the police having to demonstrate an intent to sell the products, and there's normally a minimum threshold to be covered under the law," he said. "But this poorly written bill doesn't spell that out."
Lawmakers considered an amendment to the bill to assess anyone under 21 a $100 fine per violation for getting caught with e-cigarettes, but the measure failed.
Vaping concerns have risen to the top of Beacon Hill's agenda in recent weeks amid an outbreak of vaping-related illness that's being probed by federal and state health officials.
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 the illness that has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed 39, including three people in Massachusetts.
Health groups accuse vaping companies of hooking teenagers on nicotine-laden e-cigarettes such with flavors such as bubblegum, mint and mango.
'Law needs teeth'
Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, who voted for the measure, said penalties for violating the new rules have to be tough.
"This is a major public health concern, so the law needs to have teeth," she said. "The penalty has to be substantial to prevent black-market sales to our youth."
Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, one of the bill's sponsors, said the intent is to make fines and penalties on par with tobacco, as a deterrent to potential violators.
"The thinking was, if we're going to be fair about this, in terms of taxing and other regulations, we should extend the penalties to vaping as well," he said. "There has to be an enforcement component to it."
The House's approval of a permanent ban on flavored e-cigarettes comes as Gov. Charlie Baker's administration fights to keep a 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. Vape stores challenged the ban in court, and Baker was ordered by a state judge to file emergency regulations in order to keep the restrictions in place until Dec. 24.
The House ban on flavored vapes and tobacco must still be approved by the state Senate before it is sent to Baker for consideration.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org