Ban on flavored vapes, menthol cigarettes in NJ advances
TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers took their first steps toward banning flavored electronic cigarettes and traditional menthol-flavored cigarettes Thursday as part of a package of vaping legislation that was recommended by a gubernatorial task force.
Health committees in the Senate and Assembly each advanced the bills, which seek the same goals but in some aspects aren’t identical. The proposed ban on flavored vapes would cover everything except for tobacco, including mint and menthol.
The bills also increase fines for illegal sales, increasing licensing fees for vape businesses from $50 to $500 a year, double taxes on vaping liquid and cartridges and impose a new 20% tax on electronic smoking devices. They also prohibit vaping devices disguised to look like something else.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, said vaping is harmful to health just as cigarettes are – but that while cigarettes kill people slowly over time, vaping can quickly do harm. He said flavors intend to appeal to youth and that the state also should ban flavored cigarillos, a substitute for cigarettes.
“What are we going to do to protect our kids and are we going to take actions that are available to us to do that?” Conaway said. “That’s the essential question.”
Olivia Browndorf, a senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, said studies show a single Juul pod can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. She said her generation is “suffocating in a society filled with flavored air.”
“My friends are addicted,” Browndorf said. “My friends are reliant on a device that is killing them. They believe they’re invincible and believe they’ll never be the person attached to an oxygen tank.”
Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said a survey of school officials last month found “usage has skyrocketed.”
“The prevalence of e-cigarette use on school campuses as serious, significant, critical and impossible to manage,” said Lamon, who said it’s important to try to ban devices that mimic other objects, such as a cell phone, USB drive or hygiene product.
Mark Anton, executive director of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, warned there would be unintended consequences, citing a nearly 6% increase in smoking rates in Massachusetts in the four weeks after a temporary vaping ban was imposed.
“That’s a public harm, not a public good,” Anton said.
One person said she had to close her vape shop due to misinformation and the looming flavor ban. Another shop owner, Cheryl Agro, said flavored vaping saved her life by helping her step down from cigarettes and that adults will turn to kids who know how to make black-market items.
“This bill does not successfully stop the teen epidemic. All it does is punish the adults who have a right to a choice,” Agro said. “Remove these products from convenience stores and gas stations, just like you do alcohol and you put them in licensed liquor shops.”
Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, questioned how it is that the vaping industry now wants to be part of the solution.
“It also seems a little bit of kind of a hostage situation: ‘Well, we have the sophistication. We have all the processes in place. We’re the only ones that if you work with us, we could stop the epidemic,’” Benson said. “You guys caused the epidemic. It’s clear. Take some responsibility. Take these products off the market.”
Anton said they are twice as effective at reducing smoking as approved smoking cessation devices.
Samantha DeAlmeida, New Jersey government relations coordinator for the American Cancer Society, said no e-cigarettes have been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval as a cessation device.
“Truthfully, if they were to be deemed a cessation device, under the amendments today, with the definition that is in the bill, it would be carved out. Cessation devices are carved out of the bill,” said DeAlmeida. “So if the e-cigarette companies wanted to do the right thing, truly believe that they are a cessation device, submit the product to the FDA, go through the process, and if they’re approved, this would no longer apply to them. So they have an out that way.”
The ban on menthol cigarettes has been discussed privately for weeks. It was endorsed as a standalone bill in the Senate health committee and added through an amendment to the flavored vapes bill in the Assembly health committee.
Jiles Ship, past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and a member of the state’s Police Training Commission, said a menthol ban would be counterproductive. He called it unjust and insensitive toward people of color who more commonly prefer them.
“Giving police officers a reason to detain and engage African-American smokers to find out where they purchase their menthol cigarettes could lead to encounters that are likely to escalate to unnecessary use of force and arrests,” Ship said.
Conaway said the bill wouldn’t make it a crime to possess menthol cigarettes, which he said would discourage punitive encounters with police. But Ship said that for police to investigate distributors of menthol cigarettes, they’d start with interviews of people who bought them.
The bills were directed to the Senate and Assembly appropriations committee for additional consideration before they can reach the floor for votes. The earliest those hearings will be held, according to the current calendar, is Dec. 5.
The earliest the bills could potentially be approved and sent to Gov. Phil Murphy is Dec. 16.