Board of health considers banning menthol-flavored tobacco products

Jul 2, 2019

This article has been updated to reflect that the proposed ban is a health regulation, not a bylaw, meaning that the Board can singlehandedly pass a ban without Town Meeting approval. Additionally, the hearing on the ban, originally scheduled for July 17, has been canceled.

The Wareham Board of Health is considering banning all flavored tobacco products, including menthol and mint flavored cigarettes and flavored vape products. A second proposed health regulation change would remove an exemption for the town’s smoke shops. 

Local business owners say that this change would devastate their business and would only push smokers to stores in neighboring towns.

At the board’s June 5 meeting, the board heard a presentation from the director of the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Control Program and the Public Health Liaison for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, who emphasized the preference for menthol cigarettes among juvenile smokers and the disproportionate effect of tobacco related illness and death on African Americans, who are more likely to smoke menthols than white Americans.

Wareham laws already prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco, with an exception for menthol, mint, and wintergreen flavored products, except for in the town’s smoke shops, which do not allow anyone under 21 years old to enter.

One health regulation change would ban the sale of menthol flavored products, with an exception for smoke shops.

The second proposed health regulation change would eliminate that exception, meaning that all retailers, including smoke shops, would only be able to sell unflavored tobacco and vape products.

Business owners who spoke to Wareham Week were outspoken about the issue, but asked to stay anonymous due to fears of retribution from the Board of Health.

One business owner said that it felt like convenience and liquor stores were being targeted by the board, and noted that even as more products are banned from sales, the fee business owners need to pay the town has stayed the same. The ban on flavored tobacco was tough on businesses, and the proposed menthol ban would be an additional hardship.

“We need to live. We need to make money. We’re not rich people,” said one business owner.

Despite numerous attempts, Wareham Week was unable to obtain comment from the Wareham Health Agent or Board of Health.

Business owners are skeptical of the ban, saying that it will not convince anyone to stop smoking, but will only push their business (and taxes) to other towns.

One owner said that if the ban went through, he would likely have to lay off employees.

Another cited the ripple effect that these kinds of bans have on other businesses and workers, including distributors, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers.

They also denied responsibility for underage smoking: All retailers are responsible for making sure that the people they sell to are of age, but they cannot control who uses the product once it’s out in the world.

They argued instead that it is the responsibility of parents and guardians to teach their children not to smoke and to enforce that rule.

Additionally, business owners argued that the board could be pushing tobacco users towards a black market.

Business owners said they felt the bill was especially unfair given the proliferation of marijuana businesses in town, noting that smoking marijuana also has poor health effects.

One business owner noted that the ban would affect many small businesses in town.

“It’s going to come to a point where we can’t afford [to stay in business],” one said.

The proposed regulation isn’t unprecedented in the state: Barnstable, Brookline, Ashland, Framingham, Needham, Somerville, Swampscott and Walpole have banned all flavored tobacco products, including menthol.

More than 140 other towns in the state have some flavor restrictions with exemptions for menthol, mint, and wintergreen.

There are currently bills in both the Massachusetts State House and Senate that would ban sales of all flavored tobacco, including menthol, mint, and wintergreen (Senate Bill 1279 and House Bill 1902, respectively).

The bills have been referred to the joint committee on Public Health.