Bangor has taken an initial step toward becoming the first municipality in Maine to ban flavored tobacco products, a move that its supporters are hoping will generate momentum for a statewide ban.
The draft ordinance, which would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes within city limits, passed through the City Council’s government operations committee unanimously on Wednesday with almost no opposition from the public. Retailers who continued to sell such products in spite of the ban, which would take effect in 2022, would face fines.
Bangor’s ban would take effect as the Maine Legislature prepares to consider a similar statewide measure when it reconvenes next year.
While it is illegal for any Mainer below age 21 to purchase tobacco products, those under that age widely use e-cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, often obtaining them through family members and older friends. About 40.7 percent of Penobscot County high schoolers reported having ever tried a vape product in the 2019 Maine Integrated Health Survey, though that was the lowest rate for high schoolers in any county in Maine.
About three times as many Penobscot County high schoolers reported using an electronic vapor product over the last 30 days in the 2019 survey versus other tobacco products.
Such high rates are undoubtedly the result of flavored tobacco, said Hilary Schneider, regional government relations director for the American Cancer Society Action Network.
“Flavor is what hooks the kids,” Schneider said. “It’s what keeps them using.”
A ban on sales of flavored tobacco products in Bangor could drive support for the statewide measure, she said.
There is a long history of municipalities leading the way in Maine, including on smoking, Schneider said. In 2007, Bangor became the first city in the country to ban smoking in cars carrying children. One year later, the policy was enshrined into state law.
While Bangor would be the first municipality in Maine to ban sales of flavored tobacco products, more than 300 across the country have restricted their sales, according to a list kept by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. More than 120 have also banned menthol cigarettes, as Bangor is poised to do.
There has been clear evidence that use of flavored tobacco products has gone down in communities that have banned them, said Kevin O’Flaherty, director of advocacy for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
These efforts often emerge at the municipal level for a clear reason: the tobacco industry has a lot more influence in state capitals than in individual municipalities, O’Flaherty said.
“They don’t have lobbyists who are working in Bangor, or in Portland for that matter,” he said. “It makes it easier for citizens addressing the concerns they have in their communities to get these policies passed.”
Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who is sponsoring the flavored tobacco ban bill in the Legislature, welcomed Wednesday night’s vote from Bangor’s government operations committee.
“I think good policy at the local level can absolutely influence policy in Augusta,” Meyer said. “I’m optimistic my colleagues in the Legislature will follow Bangor’s example and do the same in support of my bill in the 2nd regular session.”