Public health advocates have squared off against retail business owners over a Senate bill that would ban the sale of some flavored tobacco products.
Advocates say flavored tobacco is a means of hooking young smokers.
Washington tobacco retailers argue that they have enough regulations to cope with and that the state should focus on existing laws that prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from buying tobacco. They say a ban on flavored tobacco will cripple their businesses.
It seems to us those supporting the ban have the better of the argument. Think of the millions of dollars that have been spent in this state to keep people from smoking and to help those addicted to nicotine to kick their habit. In that environment, does it make sense to allow a product that is likely to hook more people on the nicotine habit?
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And make no mistake, says Mary Selecky, secretary of the Department of Health, flavored tobacco is aimed at youngsters.
“Limiting tobacco products that are particularly appealing to young people — the flavored and the candy-like — is a major step toward our goal of keeping all kids from starting to use tobacco,” Selecky said. She argued that young people are curious about tobacco products that taste good and those who start using a nicotine product before they are 18 are more likely to use tobacco for the rest of their lives, driving up health care costs in the state.
Dr. Diana Yu, Thurston County’s health officer, agrees. She said that as a child she remembers chocolate flavored cigarettes that kids would use. “Those chocolate cigarettes gave the impression that smoking was OK and that smoking was a cool thing to do,” Dr. Yu said. Studies show that 23 percent of Thurston County’s high school seniors smoke, above the statewide average of 20 percent.
While she had not read Senate Bill 5380, Yu said she can say with certainty that “tobacco is definitely not good for you.”
Washington already has a Youth Access to Tobacco law on the books. That law prohibits the sale of tobacco, in any form, to persons under 18 years of age. Retailers who sell tobacco products to minors can lose their license and face penalties from $100 to $1,500.
But let’s be honest. Underage kids find a way to support their nicotine habit — usually by getting friends or family members to purchase their tobacco products.
While the Food and Drug Administration has banned flavored cigarettes, tobacco flavored like peach, white grape, strawberry, banana split, cookie dough, and other flavors is not banned. The bill introduced by Sen. Scott White, D-Seattle, bans tobacco products that have an aroma or flavor other than tobacco or menthol, that are marketed as such or that come in dissolvable, capsule form. The bill would also require all tobacco products to be displayed somewhere they are not directly accessible to buyers and would allow county-level jurisdictions to pass tobacco regulations that are stricter than state ones.
Retailers say the state’s focus should be on keeping tobacco products and alcohol out of the hands of minors, not imposing additional regulations on sellers of tobacco products and jeopardizing their livelihoods. Besides, they say, adults should be able to use flavored tobacco as they desire.
Jeannie Lee, executive director of the Korean American Grocers’ Association based in Federal Way, told the Seattle Times that about 40 percent of a typical store’s sales volume is from tobacco, with perhaps half of that from flavored products. Lee said a ban would put many small retailers out of business.
A financial analysis of the impact of the Senate bill notes that it would lead to a loss of tax revenue of about $21 million for the state in the 2011-13 spending cycle.
Advocates for the bill are quick to say that the health benefits of keeping young people off tobacco would offset those losses. They point to a 2010 study from the state tobacco prevention program that showed that $5 has been saved in health care costs for every dollar spent on prevention in the last 10 years.
Adults should have a free choice to use a legal product. Sen. White, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he’s open to the idea of amending the bill so that it did not ban the products entirely in order to address opponents’ concerns about adult free choice. That makes sense.