Youth activists, physicians, school administrators and public health experts urge passage of bill to prevent the tobacco industry from using menthol candy flavors to target and hook kids, communities of color, and LGBTQ young adults
May 7, 2021
By Ramona du Houx
At a public hearing at Maine’s state capitol in Augusta, in the Health and Human Services Committee, policymakers heard testimony on LD 1550, An Act To End the Sale of Flavored Tobacco Products. Dozens of youth activists, physicians, school administrators, and public health advocates shared information and stories about how the tobacco industry is targeting youth, young adults, Black and brown, indigenous, LGBTQ, low income, and other marginalized communities with menthol, mint, and candy flavored products.
“Tobacco use among Maine youth is skyrocketing,” states Dr. Deborah Hagler, a Brunswick pediatrician and President of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (Maine AAP). “Data shows that 4 out of 5 kids who have ever used tobacco started with a flavored product, and that’s not an accident. Tobacco companies have developed an array of menthol, mint, and candy-flavored products because they know that’s how to addict their next generation of customers. These flavored products aren’t for adults. Flavors hook kids.”
There are now over 15,000 flavored tobacco products on the market. Examples include Winter Menthol, Peppermint Mocha, Cherry Crush, Banana Blast, Pop Tart, and Cotton Candy. Flavors are used in a variety of tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and e-cigarettes.
“The 13 of us on this committee have the ability to impact the health of Maine kids and families – not just today but for generations to come. There may be few bills we have considered together that have the potential to make such a significant impact on the health, hope, and productivity of Maine kids and communities,” said Representative Michele Meyer (D-Eliot) sponsor of LD 1550.
African Americans suffer the greatest burden of tobacco-related mortality of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Tobacco industry documents reveal a long history of aggressive marketing to African Americans, including cheaper prices, sponsorships of community and music events, and more advertising of menthol cigarettes in African American neighborhoods.
“When it comes to justice and fairness, strong tobacco control policy is low-hanging fruit in confronting health disparities. Ending the sale of menthol cigarettes will disproportionately benefit Black Americans by reducing smoking and saving lives. I hope you will join me in saying ‘enough is enough’ to Black people dying from menthol flavored tobacco products,” said Representative Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), a co-sponsor of LD 1550. Talbot Ross’s father was the first African American to become a legislator in Maine.
Today, more than 8 out of 10 African American adults who smoke use menthol cigarettes.
Research has shown that menthol flavoring makes it easier to start and become addicted to cigarettes. “The science of menthol makes it the most dangerous flavored tobacco product,” added Dr. Hagler. “Menthol numbs the throat and masks the harsh taste of tobacco, making it easier to inhale, and inhale more deeply.People who smoke menthol also show greater signs of nicotine addiction and are less likely to successfully quit smoking than other smokers.
The use of flavors to lure and hook kids was called out by other speakers at today’s event, and all spoke of the need for a reckoning with the generational health disparities caused by tobacco industry targeting. LGBTQ adults smoke at rates up to two and a half times higher than straight adults. One in three transgender adults smoke cigarettes, and one in three LGBTQ smokers smoke menthol.
“The American Lung Association strongly supports LD 1550 to end the sale of menthol and all other flavored tobacco products in Maine. Indeed, the measure stands to be one of the most important public health measures in recent memory. We applaud the recent announcement by the Biden Administration to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market, but Maine kids cannot afford to wait for federal action. We continue to urge states and localities to act now to end the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products to ensure our children today can become the first tobacco-free generation,” said Lance Boucher, Senior Division Director, State Public Policy, Eastern, American Lung Association.
Tobacco use among Maine youth is on the rise. Maine’s high school smoking rates are higher than the national average and the second highest in the Northeast. In 2019, 1 in 3 Maine high school students used some form of tobacco, including cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, cigars, and electronic cigarettes. That’s a 33 percent increase since 2017. More than 1 in 4 Maine high school students now uses e-cigarettes, a rate that has nearly doubled in the past 2 years.
Morgan Washburn, a 10th grader from Brunswick told the committee, “By targeting my generation with these flavors, the tobacco industry is creating its next group of nicotine-addicted consumers. I am not willing to sacrifice my health, or anyone else’s, to the tobacco industry. By voting ‘yes’ on LD 1550, you’ll prove that you aren’t willing to sacrifice this generation either.”
Every year in Maine, 2,400 people die from tobacco-related illness; direct health care costs surpass $800 million; and almost $650 million in economic productivity is lost. It is estimated that 27,000 Maine kids currently under age 18 will die prematurely from tobacco-related illness.
“Flavors are a marketing weapon used by tobacco manufacturers to target youth and young people and set them up for a lifetime of addiction,” said Hilary Schneider, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) in Maine. “The same is true for communities of color, the LGBTQ community and people with mental and behavioral health conditions. The rapid increased use of flavored products by youth and young adults, and under- regulation of these products requires the Maine Legislature to take action to protect youth and young adults, and public health at-large.”