Proposed ban on flavored tobacco creates sparks

You wouldn’t think peach-flavored cigarillos would cause such a ruckus.

Legislation to ban sales of kid-friendly tobacco products inspired fervent testimony from both supporters and opponents at a recent legislative hearing in Olympia.

Public-health officials maintained that the brightly colored, flavored products start teens down a dark road to lifetime nicotine addiction. But critics countered that banning the popular products would bankrupt some convenience stores, slash state revenue and stifle freedom of choice.

Stephen Martin of Altadis USA, a tobacco manufacturer, accused lawmakers of an “irresponsible effort to promote your own personal crusade against tobacco.” He urged them to focus instead on underage drinking. “I challenge you to please cite one instance where a teenager was directly responsible for killing someone after consuming a flavored cigar or pipe tobacco.”

Grape-flavored Swisher Sweets cigarillos are on display at the East Kent Shell Station in Kent.

Grape-flavored Swisher Sweets cigarillos are on display at the East Kent Shell Station in Kent.

The bill, subject of testimony before the House Health Care & Wellness committee last week, also would give local jurisdictions more control over tobacco sales. A hearing on a similar Senate bill was set for Monday.

Tobacco “gateway”

Dr. David Fleming, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, said the products — such as Swisher Sweets cigarillos in peach, white grape and strawberry flavors — are essentially a “gateway to long-term tobacco use.”

They are typically sold in convenience stores and neighborhood markets, sometimes displayed in front of the counter along with candy. Though state law says stores can’t sell tobacco to anyone under 18, health authorities say younger teens often manage to buy the products.

The bill would ban outright the sale or distribution of smokable tobacco products that have a “distinguishable flavor or aroma other than tobacco.” It also would ban tobacco or nicotine products that are composed of smokeless tobacco, such as lozenges, pouches, pills or capsules.

Flexibility urged

Local jurisdictions are now prohibited from imposing regulations on tobacco sales that are more restrictive than the state law, which limits them from regulating tobacco retail outlets near schools or creating signs in stores that target the particular tobacco issue in that community, Fleming said.

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsorship, would give local jurisdictions “the room that we need to be flexible and to be innovative,” he told committee members.

Department of Health Secretary Mary Selecky testified that kids often start their nicotine addiction with flavored products. According to a state survey, teen use is on the upswing.

Megan Sullivan, representing a Thurston County youth anti-violence and substance-abuse agency, told lawmakers some tobacco products, including dissolvable tobacco that looks like mints or gum, can be used by teens without parents or teachers knowing.

“Nicotine is as or more addictive than cocaine or heroin,” Sullivan told lawmakers.

The products, including mint-like Camel Orbs, were test-marketed in Portland and currently aren’t available in this state, said James Apa, spokesman for the Seattle-King County health department.

Owners of convenience stores and smoke shops lined up to oppose the bill, warning of lost revenue for them and the state and store closures and layoffs. Some predicted that customers who can’t buy locally will buy on the black market, at tribal stores, online or in other states.

“This bill would basically bankrupt us,” said Jeff Toole, of Spokane, who owns two retail stores with his wife. Like others, Toole urged lawmakers instead to enforce existing laws against selling to minors, even to raise penalties if necessary.

Jeannie Lee, executive director of the Korean American Grocers’ Association based in Federal Way, representing 980 stores in the state, said many store owners work 14 hours a day and are struggling in this economy.

Lee, in an interview, said about 40 percent of a typical store’s sales volume is from tobacco, with perhaps half of that from flavored products.

“Our stores rely on the profit of selling tobacco products,” Lee told committee members at the hearing. “Our members will be devastated by this bill.”

Lee said the impression she got from other speakers is that convenience stores are selling to 11-year-olds, but “they’re not,” she insisted. Store owners are very mindful of complying with state law, she said.

Kelly Camoza, who has owned a convenience store in Kent for nearly four years, spoke as a representative of 400 members of the Washington Association of Neighborhood Stores. The bill, she said, could cause the state to lose millions of dollars in tax revenues — and still wouldn’t keep the products out of the hands of kids, who have been sneaking smokes since long before the advent of flavored products.

Some committee members weren’t convinced a law is needed. Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, worried that the bill would create a patchwork of regulations, with people traveling to different towns to get products. “Kids have automobiles these days,” she said.

Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, said lawmakers shouldn’t continue proposing bills to restrict tobacco while expecting to pay for health-care programs with tobacco-tax revenue. “At what point do we actually say we have done enough?”

Even if using tobacco is a bad idea, “At some point, we have to say, you know what, you can’t stop people from being stupid or arguably, having some fun once in a while,” Hinkle said.

“At some point, we have to say, this is America, and this is freedom. … When will you guys stop coming here every year?”

“When people don’t use tobacco that kills,” shot back Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, committee chairwoman and a sponsor of the bill.


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