WEST SPRINGFIELD — Gándara Center, a statewide agency based that provides culturally sensitive behavioral-health, substance-use, prevention, and educational services, recently voiced its support of recently proposed legislation in Massachusetts that would take all flavored tobacco off the market. Another bill supported by the Gándara Center would apply tax parity across all tobacco products — that is, taxing e-cigarettes like tobacco cigarettes.
On Oct. 7, Gándara Center sent a letter to state Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo urging the passage of S.2357, which would ban all flavored tobacco products, and S.1606, which would institute an excise tax on vape products and increase the tax on cigarettes and cigars.
There have been more than 1,400 vaping or e-cigarette-related lung-injury cases across the U.S., including 29 in Massachusetts, and one death in Hampshire County, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“We applaud Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-month e-cigarette ban as a necessary pause while health officials investigate vaping-related lung injuries,” reads the letter. “However, the next logical step is taking all flavored tobacco off the market permanently. Gov. Baker’s ban, while necessary, will only temporarily protect youth from vaping. We need to ensure that young people who have been exposed to flavored vape products don’t turn to menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products as a substitute — or return to flavored vape products once the e-cigarette ban ends. We must act now to solve the flavored-tobacco problem as a whole.”
Gándara Center, whose mission is to promote the well-being of culturally diverse populations, is the host agency for the Hampden County Tobacco Free Community Partnership (TFCP), which supports the smoke-free efforts of Springfield and surrounding communities both in the home and in the workplace. TFCP has been active in pointing out to the community the sharp spike in youth vaping — especially the fact that e-cigarette use among high-school students increased 78% from 2017 to 2018.
TFCP Director Sara Moriarty pointed out Massachusetts is now the eighth-worst state in the country in terms of high-school use of electronic cigarettes. “We need to stop this trend,” she said. “It’s obvious that candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes are an attempt to get people hooked on nicotine products at a young age. And studies have shown that people who start smoking or using any tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, in adolescence smoke more and have a more difficult time quitting than people who start smoking later in life.”
According to a report from the CDC and FDA, almost one-third of the middle- and high-school students who used e-cigarettes in 2016 said the availability of flavors was a main reason they did. “Flavored tobacco is designed to lure kids,” Moriarty said.
Many of the reports of the U.S. vaping illness outbreak involve severe, life-threatening illnesses in previously healthy people, and more than a third of the patients are under 21. In fact, 80% of Massachusetts’ high-school youth who are current tobacco users reported using a flavored tobacco product in the past 30 days, according to a Massachusetts Youth Health Survey.
As for taxing e-cigarettes, Gándara Center’s letter insists that making e-cigarettes more expensive is an effective tool in making them less attractive to kids. “Taxing tobacco products is a proven strategy for reducing youth tobacco use,” the letter reads. “Massachusetts’ low youth cigarette-smoking rate is due in part to its pattern of consistently raising cigarette taxes every few years. We have not raised the cigarette tax since 2013. It’s time. Studies show that e-cigarette use puts kids at risk for smoking cigarettes, but e-cigarettes and other vape products currently have no excise tax at all.”
Taxing e-cigarettes and vaping products at 75% of wholesale will bring them to near parity with cigarettes, according to Gándara Center. “We can stop this epidemic in its tracks — if we act now,” the letter concludes.