The Bangor City Council has voted 7-1 to ban flavored tobacco products, but the ban will not take effect until after the Maine Legislature reconvenes next year.
Bangor is the first community in Maine to vote to ban the sale of such products, doing so amid a debate that brought national attention to the city and featured contentious debate between residents as well as councilors. The ordinance bans the sale and marketing of all flavored tobacco products in the city — including menthol cigarettes and e-cigarette flavors that have a taste or smell besides tobacco — beginning on June 1, 2022.
The original ordinance, which would have taken effect on Jan. 1, 2022, appeared poised to be voted down before Councilor Jonathan Sprague, who has spent decades in health care consulting, introduced a compromise amendment.
While the amended ordinance falls short of the pre-session ban that advocates hoped would spur the Legislature to action on a statewide prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco, it is a strong gesture for a council with many members who believe the flavored tobacco issue was better addressed at the state level.
The vote came after hours of public comment from dozens of people. Representatives of local businesses were some of the strongest opponents, with personnel from Leadbetter’s convenience stores, Joe’s Market and Dysart’s Convenience Store speaking, among others.
Jeff Leadbetter reflected the thoughts of many merchants when he said the ordinance was unneeded. It is already illegal for stores to sell tobacco products to those under 21, and there are hefty fines for any who do so, he said. Tobacco was being unfairly targeted when kids could just as easily get their hands on alcohol or cannabis products, Leadbetter said.
“Any cigarette sales to minors are very rare coming from retailers like myself and others,” Leadbetter said. “Please don’t throw common sense out the window at this point.”
But several residents and representatives of state and local organizations supported the measure, pointing to the health benefits the ban would bring for children.
One of the most impassioned pleas came from Bangor Region YMCA CEO Diane Dickerson. She was one of many supporters who referenced the Bangor City Council’s 2007 vote to ban smoking in cars with children, an effort that received national attention and helped lead to a statewide ban.
“All kids deserve the opportunity to thrive,” Dickerson said. “They need our help and our leadership to protect them in every way possible.”
Opponents and supporters saw the Bangor vote as an important step in the fight to ban the sale of flavored tobacco at the state level. That bill, LD 1550, was reported out of committee earlier this year but had not come to a vote before the end of this year’s legislative session.
Rep. Michele Meyer, D-Eliot, who is sponsoring LD 1550, praised the Bangor City Council for passing the ordinance late Monday, saying they had stood up to a powerful and deceptive tobacco industry.
“This is an important step forward,” Meyer said. “I’m confident my colleagues in the Legislature will act similarly in the best interest of full healthy lives for all of Maine’s children.”
Many opponents brought up the contents of messages the National Association of Tobacco Outlets requested under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act that they said showed an effort by Bangor councilors, especially Councilor Sarah Nichols, to not include the voices of merchants and other potential opponents in the process of crafting and debating the ordinance.
Many of the exchanges are text messages between Nichols and Matt Moonen, who had brought the proposal to ban flavored tobacco to her. Moonen is the executive director of Equality Maine.
Earlier Monday, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association had called for the council to suspend decisions on the tobacco ban and evaluate how councilors had acted.
Sprague, one of several councilors to turn back those arguments, said such allegations had ultimately hurt the opponents’ case.
“The comments about the process and how the city has not supported open dialogue are insulting, if not repulsive,” Sprague said.
City Council Chair Dan Tremble was the only councilor to vote against the ordinance.
Nichols did not directly respond to statements about her during the meeting, though she referenced them in her remarks on why she supported the ordinance.
Reached for comment on the meeting, Nichols praised Sprague’s compromise amendment, calling it the perfect amendment to meet the moment.
She said the measure’s passage was a good way to end her time on the council. Nichols is not running for reelection to her seat, and her term on the council will end shortly after next week’s election.
“It is a tough issue, but all in all, I could not have been more pleased with the result,” Nichols said.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and American Lung Association praised the City Council’s actions late Monday shortly after the vote.
“It sets a terrific example for other Maine communities and the entire state to follow,” said Kevin O’Flaherty, the Northeast region’s director of advocacy for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Retailers who continued to sell or market flavored tobacco products after the ordinance took effect would first face a warning, and then a $50 to $100 fine for their next offense within a two-year period after the warning. A fine of $300 to $1,000 would then be levied for each additional offense within that two-year period.
Responsibility for enforcing the policy on retailers would fall to the city manager.