New Jersey could be the first state in the nation to ban sales of menthol cigarettes, a flavor that experts believe increases addiction risk and compounds the dangers associated with smoking.
The Assembly health committee approved a new proposal on Monday that would extend existing state and federal prohibitions to include menthol-flavored combustible products, like cigarettes under the popular brands Kool and Newport.
The measure raised significant concerns for business groups worried about the impact on retailers, who could lose tens of millions of dollars in annual sales revenue. It could also reduce tobacco tax revenue for the state, they note, income that totaled some $695 million a year recently.
But committee chairman Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., a physician who sponsored the plan, said more must be done to help the Garden State further drive down smoking rates. Studies show 13.5 percent of adults and 8.2 percent of youth lit up in 2015, well below the national average.
While New Jersey now has one of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the nation, banning cigarette sales to those under age 21, health advocates like the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids note that at least 3,500 children still pick up the habit each year, and 143,000 individuals die from smoking-related diseases.
High cost of smoking
Treating these diseases also costs the state, noted Conaway (D-Burlington), and reducing the healthcare expenses associated with smoking could save more than it raises in tobacco taxes. “In my view the scale comes down on the side of saving and preserving life,” he said.
Tobacco also takes a heavier toll on communities of color, and Conaway called it “reprehensible” how flavored products in particular have been marketed specifically to African-American and lower-income communities, which now make up the bulk of menthol consumers.
“Black males in particular are probably, as a group, the most heavily affected by lung cancer related to smoking menthol cigarettes,” noted Conaway, who is black, and serves as a board member on the Truth Initiative, a national campaign to reduce tobacco use.
In the black community
More than 25 percent of African-Americans smoke cigarettes and nearly 30 percent use some form of tobacco products, according to 2013 data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly nine out of 10 of these black smokers chose menthol products.
The CDC notes that some studies have shown menthol can make it easier for the body to absorb the harmful chemicals contained in tobacco and can actually increase the risk of addiction.
“Research has shown that menthol promotes addiction to nicotine and actually, because of the cooling effect, allows people to draw more of these toxic substances into the lung and hold them there,” Conaway added Monday. “The science supports that it promotes cancer.”
In 2009, federal legislation was adopted to discourage the use of flavored cigarettes nationwide, but menthol was exempted from the ban; New Jersey had instituted a similar ban in 2008, but it also did not apply to menthol or clove-flavored products.
Some are now calling on the Federal Drug Administration to revisit the 2009 decision, including a group of Democratic U.S. Senators who wrote the FDA in September and noted that the agency’s own studies deemed menthol cigarettes a greater public health risk than unflavored smokes.
But bans on menthol products have so far been limited to local laws, according to published reports. An Oakland, CA, law outlawing all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, blunt wraps, and vape materials, took effect this month.
Come April, these products will also be illegal in neighboring San Francisco, which adopted the ban last summer. In Minneapolis, menthol will be added to a list of outlawed tobacco flavors starting in August, the result of a community-led effort to reduce smoking rates.
In New Jersey, Conaway’s bill, (A-2185) would ban sales, trades, or other distribution of menthol or clove-flavored combustible products. He is currently the lone sponsor on the bill — which was both introduced and voted out of the health committee on Monday. There is not yet a Senate version.
Conaway’s measure would not address vapes or electronic cigarette mechanisms, which he said were safer than traditional smokes. (Past Democratic proposals have sought to restrict flavored oils used in vapes, which some research suggests has further tempted children to try tobacco.)
But while praising his intentions, not everyone is on board with Conaway’s proposal. The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and other retail associations opposed the measure on Monday.
Mary Ellen Peppard, who represents retailers through the New Jersey Food Council, said members estimate that menthol products account for well over one-third of their tobacco sales; one store fears it could lose as much as $80 million annually as a result of the ban, she said.
“In addition to the direct revenue loss, it’s the ancillary sales as well,” Peppard explained. “It’s the cup of coffee, the sandwich, the fuel, if that customer decides to no longer go into their local retailer because they cannot get their product that they used to be able to buy.”
Conaway, however, said it was time to push the issue in the Garden State and perhaps start a larger movement. “If we are able to achieve it here and perhaps move it across the country, we will save lives,” he said. “I know it’s not going to be easy because of the arguments that were raised here, but I know it’s an important initiative to save lives.”