When is a flavor not a flavor? That’s a question before state lawmakers after a bill filed to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products included mentholated cigarettes.

The proposed ban on flavored tobacco products sprang to life this year as government and health officials recognized the huge increase in the number of young people vaping – using e-cigarettes – on top of reports about illnesses and deaths caused by mysterious lung ailments linked to vaping.

The growing popularity of vaping has been further complicated by the fact some vapers use THC-laced products, although the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not identified the cause of the lung injuries and deaths, and they say the “only commonality among all cases is that patients report the use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products.”

But it’s menthol cigarettes that have been center stage recently, with members of the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association and other independent stores across the state — about 1,000 of them in total, according to organizers — posting notices telling customers some of the stores were closed one day in protest of the proposed ban. These are menthol cigarettes that are at issue with the convenience stores, although mentholated vaping products would be banned as well, if the legislation won passage.

The convenience store owners are protesting the proposed ban because of “the risks associated with such a ban including the failure of proposed bans to prevent minors from accessing and using tobacco, racial inequality, food security, and crime,” according to an association statement reported by the State House News Service.

For people who might not be familiar with mentholated cigarettes, critics have long lambasted the cigarette industry for decades of advertising — especially in urban areas — targeting African-Americans with ads for Kool and Salem cigarettes. The same held true with TV advertising, which often featured black actors savoring the “springtime fresh” taste of Salems — until federal regulators banned that form of cigarette advertising.

“I think we’ve got to take a look at in terms of whether menthol would fall into that so-called flavor situation as well and whether we should take it a step further,” said House Speaker Robert DeLeo. He added, “So I think now that becomes an issue that we have to take a look at, and right now in the Ways and Means Committee we have a vaping bill right now there, so we’ll see how that comes out.”

Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration had to curtail a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products to keep it alive, backed the idea of banning flavored e-cigarettes but didn’t directly answer whether he considers menthol a flavor, according to the news service.

“I think as far as the conversation is taking place with respect to vaping, certainly all the issues associated with bubble gum, strawberry, raspberry all that sort of thing, those are certainly flavors that need to be taken out of the mix,” he said. But, Baker said, he wants more information from state and federal health officials to help craft “the appropriate regulatory framework in place around vaping.”

DeLeo said House members would be studying whether menthol falls into the “so-called flavor situation” and raised the issue about the tobacco industry targeting African-Americans. He was echoing the concern highlighted by Jason Boyd of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation at a press conference last week. In that press conference, Boyd said he believed any legislation that seeks to deal with vaping and smoking but does not prohibit menthol would be inadequate, according to the news service.

“By excluding menthols, the state would be [saying] it’s OK to target a particular community,” Boyd said.

With all eyes on the popularity of vaping – and its replacement of traditional cigarette smoking, in many cases – lawmakers and health officials are right to look closely at menthol and everything else aimed at making smoking more attractive to people of any age. These are addictive products that have been proven harmful to people. Whether they are banned or not, strong and clear regulation and oversight are warranted now more than ever.


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