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Albany County Legislature Nears Vote On Flavored Tobacco Sale Ban

Flavored tobacco and e-cigarette products on the shelves of a Stewart's store in Latham.
Dave Lucas
Flavored tobacco and e-cigarette products can be found on the shelves of a Stewart's Store in Latham.

The Albany County Legislature is poised to vote on a law that would ban the sale of flavored vapor and smoke-free tobacco products.

If Local Law E is approved, Albany County would become the first in the state to ban sales of flavored vapor products and smokeless tobacco products, as well as flavored cigars, pipe tobacco and cigarettes.  

Credit Albany County Legislature
Republican Paul Burgdorf is the Albany County Legislature's deputy minority leader.

Republican Paul Burgdorf is the County Legislature's deputy minority leader:   "All pipe tobacco is flavored. So if you are a 50- or a 60-or a 70-year-old pipe smoker, you will not be able to buy any tobacco in Albany County. That's just wrong. I'm not a cigarette smoker but I understand that 39 percent of smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. If this law were to pass, Albany County residents are going to wake up one morning and find that they cannot even buy a cigarette that's legal in 61 other counties in Albany County."

The New York Association of Convenience Stores believes Local Law E could result in stores losing money, and taxpayers holding the bag. NYACS President Jim Calvin says the law would mean flavored tobacco would disappear from Albany County convenience stores, causing them economic harm.  "We estimate that the impact on convenience stores in Albany County would be in the range of $50 million a year. And if we lose $50 million a year in legitimate sales, that means Albany County's gonna lose $2 million a year in sales tax on those sales, so the impact is significant."

Calvin adds stores stand to lose 5 to 10 percent or more of their inside sales, just in tobacco products, not to mention items like coffee, sandwiches, lottery tickets and newspapers that customers would buy elsewhere.

A coalition of child advocacy groups support Local Law E, arguing that more than 80 percent of kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product. They cite flavors as one of the top reasons why children start using e-cigarettes.

Calvin disagrees: "All the attention seems to be on 'let's bash the retailers, when none of the attention is on the young people themselves. We're not saying 'focus on the kids exclusively and leave the convenience stores alone.' We need to be regulated, obviously. They do undercover stings to make sure we're not selling to minors. But at the same time, if we tell young people not to smoke, not to use these cigarettes, and they do it anyway, are we not going to hold them accountable?"

Burgdorf says the legislation's ban of all flavored vapes intended for e-cigarette use would put untold numbers of residents using vape to quit smoking in jeopardy of relapsing back into tobacco addiction. The Republican hopes child advocates will pay attention to a particular clause in Local Law E.   "This law, you're going to find this hard to believe, creates an exclusion for marijuana. So while you cannot vape a tobacco product, you would be able to buy vaping material for any drug that the state of New York would legalize, which is clearly pointed toward marijuana vaping. So on one hand we're telling our kids 'no, don't vape cigarettes, but it's OK to vape marijuana.' That's a very very large defect in this law."

In May, Democratic Albany County Legislature Chair Andrew Joyce told WAMC at least 17 legislators are on board with Local Law E.   "We need 20 to pass, so it's gonna be important to see what happens."

Credit Albany County Legislature
Albany County Democratic legislator Victoria Plotsky

Democratic legislator Victoria Plotsky is one of the bill’s co-sponsors:  “I do understand the concerns of local businesses. I’ve heard some very vehement heartfelt arguments on both sides. But I think, at the end of the day I need to side with the health parties that are saying these are harmful and that I think the ban will be beneficial in the long term to our youth population.”

Calvin says the issue should be decided on a national level by the Food and Drug Administration.   "They've been authorized by Congress to regulate tobacco products and e-cigarettes. And the FDA is already examining a ban on menthol cigarettes. And they're considering banning flavored e-cigarettes as well. The difference is the FDA in national. That would be a global, uniform, consistent solution that would make sure the products, if they ban the retail sales, they would also ban the manufacture of those products. If you do it county by county, all you're doing is shifting the purchase. The product still exists, they're still out there, and so people are gonna find wherever they are, legal or illegal, to do it county by county is not only ineffective, it's an exercise in futility."

The Legislature meets at 6:30 at the Albany County Courthouse.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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