ALBANY — New York lawmakers could ban flavored tobacco products amid growing concern over the tobacco and vaping industry's use of flavorings to attract young people and African Americans, though it's unclear whether a push to ban menthol cigarettes will succeed.
The Democratic Senate Majority plans to pass a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and also smokeless flavored tobacco products as soon as next week, a Democratic Senate spokesman said Monday. Senate Democrats also plan to move ahead on seven other bills including a study on the long-term health effects of e-cigarette use and laws preventing tobacco ads and new tobacco stores from popping up near schools.
It's less clear how lawmakers will act on Democratic Sen. Brad Hoylman's bill to ban all flavored tobacco products — including menthol cigarettes.
The exclusion of menthol flavorings from tobacco restrictions at the state and federal levels has long drawn criticism from public health and civil rights groups who say the tobacco industry has marketed menthol cigarettes to African Americans for decades.
"It always seemed very normal and accessible so I never really questioned it," Albany high school senior Hassani Hamilton, 17, said. "What I've come to realize is these products are deadly and their rampant use in my community is no accident."
New York state health officials issued a ban on most flavored e-cigarettes last fall in response to worries that vaping may cause illnesses and that its use is growing among teenagers who say they're attracted by flavorings.
But the ban's exclusion of menthol and tobacco flavorings drew scrutiny from a state judge in her decision to continue to block it Friday. The ban was initially blocked last fall after the vaping industry sued to stop New York from enforcing emergency regulations banning the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Catherine Cholakis said state health regulators went beyond their authority when they passed the ban, which she said touched on policy issues that lawmakers should decide. Judge Cholakis said it's a "natural question" why the regulations excluded tobacco and menthol e-liquid flavors when she hasn't seen evidence that supports continued use of those flavors.
Hamilton and representatives of public health and civil rights groups urged lawmakers Monday to ban all flavored cigarette products, and not just e-cigarettes. Cigarette smoking causes about one of every five deaths in the United States each year and 93% of adult African American smokers began smoking by using menthol cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It is the direct result of a targeted and well-funded effort by the tobacco companies over the last several decades to addict communities like mine to nicotine and tobacco," Hamilton said.
But it's unclear whether there's broad support to ban all flavored cigarettes in New York. Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker last year signed a bill to allow the nation's first ban of menthol cigarettes starting in June.
New York's governor has said he'll propose legislation this year to prohibit the sale of "all" flavored e-cigarettes and ban vaping ads targeted to youth. It's unclear whether Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's legislation would include menthol and tobacco flavorings, which the state's health commissioner has recommended.
Cuomo has expressed concern that a New York ban on menthol cigarettes could run into legal issues because they're allowed on the federal level.
A proposed federal ban on menthol cigarettes has stalled. And President Donald Trump's vaping ban excludes menthol flavoring.
The vaping industry praised the judge's Friday decision and said bans don't work.
"With this important ruling, the court has prevented the state from creating a huge new black market and ushering in a new public health crisis along with it — something that may still come to pass if the New York Legislature bans flavors," Vapor Technology Association Executive Director Tony Abboud said.
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