State officials move to fight candy-flavored tobacco

State officials are seeking $3 million in federal stimulus money to snuff out candy-flavored chewing tobacco and cigars that critics say are aimed at youths.

If the Department of Health Services receives the federal grant and lawmakers approve, it would fund a statewide campaign to persuade local communities around Wisconsin to ban sales of products like cherry-flavored chaw.

A state official said this backdoor approach could eventually lead to a statewide prohibition just as local bans on smoking in bars and restaurants led to the statewide ban taking effect in July. But one Republican lawmaker said the idea makes a mockery of the federal stimulus bill’s primary goal of creating jobs.

“This has nothing whatsoever to do with job creation,” said Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Ashwaubenon, who pledged to oppose the proposal when it comes before the Legislature’s budget committee Thursday.

Health Services spokesman Seth Boffeli said the proposal would improve people’s health and save money on health care costs from diseases linked to tobacco.

“This candy-flavored smokeless tobacco is being marketed directly at kids in junior high and high school,” Boffeli said.

New tobacco products range from mango-flavored cigars and apple snuff to snus packets, which are similar to tiny teabags filled with tobacco that users place in their mouth, and “dissolving” tobacco that can be put in candies similar to mints.

“Most parents I’ve talked to had no idea most of (these products) existed,” Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of Smokefree Wisconsin, said. “It’s important that teachers, coaches, mentors of kids all know what is out there and intervene early.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that in 2004 a study found that 22.8 percent of 17-year-old smokers reported using flavored cigarettes over the past month — compared to just 6.7 percent of smokers over the age of 25.

A federal law signed by President Obama in June bans the sale of candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes but doesn’t extend that prohibition to other tobacco products. New York City passed a ban on most other flavored tobacco products in October.

The state budget committee today thursday will also consider other requests by agencies to use federal stimulus money, including $870,000 for supporting the state Tobacco Quit Line, which has faced cuts because of the tight state budget in spite of tax increases on tobacco products.

Boffeli acknowledged that lawmakers could simply pass a statewide ban on flavored tobacco if there is support for it but said it was better to build that support first.

Montgomery said that any ban on flavored products was best left to the federal government and that the state shouldn’t be paying groups to influence local governments or public opinion.

Busalacchi, whose group won’t receive money from the grant, said she believed any campaign would focus on informing the community, not direct lobbying of leaders.

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria Group, which owns Phillip Morris USA and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, said federal law preempts local governments such as New York City from passing their own bans.

“When you ban a product like this, it can have a significant effect on local businesses,” Phelps said.


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