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Gov. Hochul’s proposed ban on flavored tobacco in doubt

Discarded menthol cigarette packaging litters a city street.
Dave Lucas
Discarded menthol cigarette packaging litters a city street.

Governor Kathy Hochul’s proposal to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, is in doubt after state lawmakers released their budget plans this week.

Supporters of the proposal, part of Hochul's $227 billion dollar budget plan, say it would have prevented individuals in targeted groups from taking up smoking in the first place.

Jeannie Orr is program manager for Capital District Tobacco-Free Communities. She considers mentholated tobacco products "a starter kit for young people."

"Over the last few years, young people their tobacco use has gone up, it was going down and down," Orr said. "And then with the introduction of e-cigarettes and the flavors in e-cigarettes, it shot up. And so now tobacco use is way high for young people. So that one out of four high school students are now using a tobacco product. A lot of it is e-cigs. But they are also moving on to other products. And what's on the market, which I think some people don't realize are these very inexpensive, flavored cigars and vapes that come in flavors like sweet watermelon, green apple, bubblegum, all kinds of flavors that are attractive to young people. And there's also menthol cigarettes, which make it easier to start and harder to quit, because it has a cooling sensation on the throat. And it makes it easier to draw in the smoke."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows African American smokers are more likely to use menthol cigarettes than individuals from all other demographic groups. Geri Bell chairs the Albany NAACP Health Committee.

"Our hope is to prevent our children from starting to smoke," said Bell. "And if it's the menthol that entices them to begin smoking in the first place, then hopefully we can reduce the number of young people who start to smoke, as well as having an impact on adults who smoke and suffer the consequences of sickness and some, sometimes ultimately that from cigarette related illnesses.”

Retail store owners opposed Hochul's initiative. Both houses in their budgets did approve raising the cigarette tax by a dollar from $4.35 to $5.35 per pack. Kent Sopris with the New York Association of Convenience Stores argues a menthol ban makes no sense since state cannabis policy allowed flavors such as fruit punch and grapefruit to be marketed in state-licensed stores.

“What these prohibitionist policies do, including the regressive tax increase, only hurt small businesses and strengthens the illicit underground market," Sopris said. "It has no meaningful impact on smoking rates in New York State. New York State a couple years ago, banned flavored tobacco vapes vape products, my members don't sell those products. But they are prevalent throughout New York. Kids still smoke them, people, adults smoke them. They've technically, not technically they've legally been banned since 2019. Yet they're everywhere. They're in the illicit market, people can get them in other states nearby, people can get them on native reservations. That's just a template for what will happen if menthol which is about a third of the category sold by my stores is banned. It will be taken out of the regulated, taxed retail space, and thrown into this unregulated, untaxed, wild wild west retail market where they don't do things like I.D. check, or pay taxes.”

Sopris says the tax increase will hurt the 7,500 businesses he represents by driving customers to buy tobacco products elsewhere.

“They're going to find them in the reservations, they're going to find them in other states, or they're going to find them in the illicit market, we've been talking about, you know, this illicit market is about 53% of, of all cigarettes in New York State that are purchased and used are from the illegal market," said Sopris. "As it's written as per the Assembly's proposal, the state's going to lose money over a tax increase. They have they've in their proposal, they assume a $13 million hit on the first year alone, nearly $80 million over four years. So that's money that's going to be taken away from cessation and health programs.”

Hochul’s office did not reply to a request for comment. The final budget is due April 1st.

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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