Flavored electronic smoking products would be banned in New Jersey, under a proposal advanced Monday by an Assembly committee — but still remains four approvals away from reaching Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.

Advocates for the plan see it as an extension of New Jersey’s ban on flavored cigarettes enacted in 2008 and say it’s intended to limit the attracting of vaping to younger people. But critics say it would cripple an industry with 350 stores in New Jersey and could send adults back to cigarettes.

“Our strategy is to try to get people into adulthood mature enough so they never pick up smoking in the first place,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington.

“We’re trying to stop the attraction that these flavors bring to smoking and to the ingestion, if you will, of nicotine,” said Conaway, who said the bill “may need fine tuning” and that he’s willing to listen.

Corinne Orlando, the American Heart Association director of government relations in New Jersey, said use of electronic cigarettes among students rose 900 percent from 2011 to 2015 – from 1.5 percent to 16 percent. Also, 5 percent of middle school students used e-cigarettes, Orlando said.

“E-cigarette use is skyrocketing among our youth … and we’re finding that a lot of the times they’re using a flavored product," Orlando said.

“The reason why this is dangerous is because children that are using these products are developing an addiction to nicotine, and a lot of times they’re serving as a gateway to cigarettes and cigars and hookahs and other tobacco products,” Orlando said.

Owners and employees of vaping businesses, many of whom talked about their own success quitting smoking using the devices, testified against the bill before the committee.

“If the bill is passed, unfortunately I see myself having to develop an exit strategy for my business because it will not survive,” said Andrea DiPaolo, who owns shops in Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties. “And unfortunately I probably would have to come up with an exit strategy for myself, who – I am born and raised a Jersey girl, love this state.”

Robert Eichenberger, owner of Popie’s Vapor Lounge in Marlton, said the changes would lead people back to traditional cigarettes.

“Do flavors entice youth? Possibly, maybe, yes,” Eichenberger said. “But flavors entice every age group and because flavors entice every age group, this bill will take the tools away from thousands of New Jersey residents and drive them back to what I like to call cancer.”

A survey of e-cigarette users found 14 percent said they would return to cigarettes if flavored liquids were banned, said Alex Clark, legislative coordinator for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association.

Mario Mastrangelo, owner of Boondock Vapes and shops in Atlantic City and Hammonton, said he initially quit smoking in his mid-40s using bubble-gum flavored e-liquid. He noted that hard liquor and beer comes in an increasing variety of flavors, with a legal drinking age of 21.

“I walked down the aisle that had all the vodka in it,” Mastrangelo said of a recent visit to a liquor store. “To my surprise, I found Swedish Fish vodka, Gummi Bear vodka, chocolate cake, orange, pineapple, whipped cream, cherry, lemon, bubble gum. The multitude of flavors went on and on.”

The bill, A3704, could prohibit the sale of devices and products that have a “characterizing flavor,” including any fruit, chocolate, vanilla, honey, candy, cocoa, dessert, alcoholic beverage, herb, or spice flavoring. Fines would be $250 for a first violation, $500 for a second one and then $1,000 after that.

The bill was advanced by the Assembly health committee by a vote of 7-2, with two voting to abstain. It's now before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“One of the most lethal things we have in this country is cigarette smoking, and if we were a smart country, we would ban cigarette smoking. But we can’t, and we won’t,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, who voted to abstain, citing some issues with the bill.

The Senate version of the bill advanced last May but hasn't gotten through the Senate budget committee.

The Assembly committee also voted 9-2 for a separate measure, A4620, which would prohibit the use of coupons, rebates and other promotions to sell tobacco or vapor products. Conaway said the state raised taxes to block teens from affording the products but that companies are trying to get around that.

“The idea is to raise the entry bar to prevent teenagers and other young people from getting access to tobacco products. It’s been shown over and over again that by raising the bar to entry into this addictive market that we can save lives,” Conaway said.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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