BOSTON (SHNS) – A retired federal law enforcement officer joined convenience store owners Wednesday to caution against legislation banning menthol cigarettes, which he said would lead to an increase in crime and divert resources away from fighting the opioid epidemic.
“I’m not here to talk about smoking, I’m here to talk about crime. Because that’s what’s going to happen right now if we begin these flavor bans and we begin attacking the marketplace,” Rich Marianos, who served 27 years at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said at a City Hall Plaza rally.
Marianos joined the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association and Boston Convenience Store Owners Association to oppose efforts at the city and state levels to ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, and flavored vaping products. The Ways and Means committees of both branches are reviewing legislation (H 4089/S 2357) based on a bill originally filed by Sen. John Keenan of Quincy and Rep. Danielle Gregoire of Marlborough to ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products.
“If this bill passes and we bring in prohibition, we’re going to bring crime into the city,” Marianos, who is now an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University, said. “We’re going to replace store owners and manufacturers with people selling out of backpacks, people selling out of cars, and worst of all, people selling directly to the children we’re trying to protect.”
Marianos said city leaders and state lawmakers should “start talking about real things” and need to understand that a tobacco product ban would create opportunities for organized criminal groups who buy flavored cigarettes in states where they are cheaper and bring them to Massachusetts to sell on the streets at a profit. And enforcement of a ban would take time and resources away from the opioid epidemic, he said.
“We’ve got an opioid problem here in Massachusetts and right now as we speak, somewhere in this city people are trading contraband black market cigarettes for heroin,” he said. Marianos told the crowd at the rally that he “work[s] with manufacturers because I believe in them” and said in testimony last year to the Kansas Legislature that he works as a consultant to a subsidiary of tobacco company Reynolds American Inc.
Earlier this week, a group of public health advocates rallied at the State House in support of banning flavors, including menthol, from all tobacco products that are vaped or smoked. The federal government banned all flavors of cigarettes except mint and menthol in 2009.
“Do not make the mistake of banning flavors only in e-cigarettes and not combustibles. This will only cause kids to turn from vaping to smoking,” Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said Monday.
Jon Shaer, executive director of NECSEMA, argued that a prohibition on flavors would mean that the products would only be available from illicit sources, which don’t offer the same types of protections as regulated sales at convenience stores.
“It’s that simple. Where do you want them sold?” he said. “Because they will be sold.”
He said his organization could support mandatory ID scanning for tobacco sales and stiffer penalties for retailers who disregard age restrictions, but not a flavor ban.
“The tobacco industry and their retailers know that flavors like menthol and mint are one of the most significant factors that addict youth to nicotine,” Kathleen McCabe from Health Resources in Action said. “It’s not surprising they are resistant to laws that will impact their profits.”
At Monday’s event in support of a flavor ban, Jason Boyd of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation highlighted how the tobacco industry has targeted African-Americans with menthol cigarette marketing. Boyd said any legislation that seeks to deal with vaping and smoking but does not prohibit menthol would be inadequate.
“By excluding menthols, the state would be (saying) it’s OK to target a particular community,” he said.
Allen Corneal, vice president of the BCSOA, rejected that thinking at the rally in opposition to the ban on Wednesday.
“City and state leaders must reject this racist segregation era policy,” he said. “The ban on menthol cigarettes sends a message to all blacks and minorities in Boston that they aren’t smart enough to choose, but white people are. Thanks but no thanks.”
Baker, whose administration had to curtail a four-month ban on the sale of all vaping products to keep it alive, backed the idea of banning flavored e-cigarettes, but did not directly answer when asked if he considers menthol a flavor.