Connecticut lawmakers seek wholesale ban on menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products

As concerns about the health risks of vaping among young people continue to grow, Connecticut lawmakers want to eliminate all flavored e-cigarette and tobacco products — including menthol cigarettes, which tobacco companies have disproportionately marketed to communities of color.

“Back in the 1960s, the Black community: we didn’t see ourselves in commercials,” said the Rev. D. Stanley Lord, president of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP. “All of a sudden [the] tobacco [industry] saw that and said, ‘hey, we can put Blacks in commercials and make it cool to smoke.’ … We need to find more bills like this that will help keep our community healthy so that we won’t have to deal with some of the ills that we’ve had.”

At a public health committee hearing on Monday, Lord and other African American leaders expressed support for Senate Bill 326, which would prohibit the sale of flavored cigarettes, tobacco products, electronic nicotine delivery systems and vapor products.

More than 70% of African American youths aged 12-17 years who smoke use menthol cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while Black adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared with other racial and ethnic groups.

Menthol cigarettes are also said to be easier to inhale, which makes it easier for harmful chemicals to be absorbed in the body, and may also be more addictive than nonmenthol cigarettes.

“Over 45,000 Black and brown Americans die at the hands of Big Tobacco every single year, and now they’re targeting our youth,” Lord, who spent three weeks in an induced coma last summer after contracting COVID-19, said. “With all due respect to our store owners, they placed these items in front of a store right next to candy. When you go to the stores and you go to the bodegas, we see these these items in full display and make it enticing for our youth.”

Jim Williams, Connecticut government relations director at the American Heart Association, said that although cigarette sales have been declining overall, the proportion of smokers choosing menthol cigarettes — the only remaining “flavored” cigarette — has been increasing.

“It’s no surprise that menthol cigarettes are popular among youth,” Williams said. “Menthol cools and numbs the throat reducing the harshness of cigarette smoke, thereby making menthol cigarettes more appealing to youth who are initiating tobacco use.”

Diane Lewis, communications director for Voices of Women of Color, said the coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that “lung health is so tied to our public health,” and that the Black community must “hold tobacco industries accountable for the harmful impact their products have.”

Not everyone agreed. The Rev. Boise Kimber, a pastor at the First Calvary Baptist Church in New Haven, said he opposed the ban over concerns that it was too broadly written and could potentially criminalize the smoking of menthol cigarettes in African American communities — a notion that lawmakers pushed back against.

Banning menthol cigarettes, Kimber said, would increase interaction between law enforcement and Black members of his community; in 2014, Eric Garner was killed by a chokehold after a police officer arrested him for selling a loose cigarette, or “loosie.”

“It is imperative that we do not support laws that criminalize addiction,” Kimber said. “Education, not criminalization, is the effective way to deter smokers.”

Anthony Miranda, executive chairman for the National Latino Officers Association, said the bill could lead to unintended conflicts between law enforcement and people of color — despite the fact that the bill does not criminalize the use or possession of menthol cigarettes or flavored nicotine products.

“What you are saying is that it doesn’t result in arrest,” Miranda said. “It doesn’t result in arrest for cigarettes, it results in arrests for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. … That’s the confrontation that we’re talking about: self-initiated contacts between police and communities of color.”

The bill defines “flavor” as a “distinguishable taste or aroma,” including any type of “fruit, chocolate, menthol, mint, wintergreen, vanilla, honey, candy, cocoa, dessert, alcoholic beverage, herb or spice,” but does not include the taste or aroma of tobacco.

Flavored vape juices and e-cigarettes are increasingly popular with high school and even middle school students, who swap flavors like they’re trading candy.

“Not a single one of my friends have said they haven’t at least tried to vape once before,” said Greer Levy, a student at Greenwich High School and member of the Greenwich Together Youth Coalition. “When the nicotine product is flavored, my friends are more prone to give in and give it a try. They pick the vapes with the best flavors because that is what makes ‘ripping it’ a fun hobby. Licking a lollipop or even chewing a piece of gum has now turned into ripping or inhaling vapor from a Juul.”

If the bill passes through the General Assembly, Connecticut would join Massachusetts, which currently has a full tobacco flavor ban on all products. New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have banned all flavored e-cigarettes and are working this session to include menthol cigarettes, while Maine is also crafting similar legislation.

A number of area retailers spoke in opposition to the bill, stating that they would potentially lose a significant source of revenue.

“By banning menthol cigarettes, it’s not only going to jeopardize our sales, but also revenue for the state,” said Nurul Alam, owner of Foodland in Hartford. “We are losing these cigarette sales, also other sales, because that individual might come to our store to find menthol, and they are also buying other stuff.”

Kyle Feldman, vice president at National Convenience Distributors (NCD), one of the largest convenience store distributors in the Northeast, said that banning the sale of menthol cigarettes from Connecticut will lead to thousands of employees losing their jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue for the state of Connecticut.

“The wholesale distribution industry understands the concern of banning the sale of flavored tobacco and vape products to the younger generations, but Connecticut already has a 21-year-old restriction for these products,” Feldman said. “Our organization is only requesting a dismissal on the potential ban of menthol flavors to the adult market.”

Michael Hamad/Hartford Courant