On February 7, City Council members in Portland, the largest city in Maine, voted unanimously to ban the sale of flavored “tobacco products.” The amendment bars the sale of all flavored nicotine products, including vapes. It does not exempt menthol. And it explicitly prohibits flavored products that use synthetic nicotine, like Puff Bar.
It will take effect on June 1, the same day as a similar ordinance in Bangor, another city in Maine. Maine’s state-level legislators, meanwhile, are pushing for a statewide flavor ban, which could come to a vote in early spring.
Councilor Tae Chong, who introduced the Portland amendment, said the move would protect “the most vulnerable among us,” particularly kids, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Implying that hundreds of other US jurisdictions couldn’t all be wrong, he said, “There are over 300 municipalities across the country that have some kind of flavored tobacco ban, and over 120 that have a full tobacco ban.”
A father described how two of his four children began vaping in middle school and “immediately became addicted.”
Portland’s bid to join them proceeded in the fashion tobacco harm reduction (THR) proponents have become wearily accustomed to. When you’ve heard one city council debate on banning flavored vaping products, you’ve heard them all.
During the public comment section held over Zoom, dozens of people—comprising concerned residents, worried business owners, and prohibition-leaning public health advocates, among others—recycled the same arguments for or against the ban. Many expressed disdain for the tobacco industry, which they argue continues to target teenagers as well as marginalized communities, while others insisted that such a ban would put small vape and tobacco shops out of business and deter adult smokers looking to switch to safer alternatives.
Commenters had three minutes to speak, before the kind of music once reserved for cell phone ringtones signaled that their time was up. One man, who explained that he did not smoke or vape but had the expertise of once being a 14-year-old, called the policy “pat-yourself-on-the-back, do-nothing legislation.” A father in support of the ban described how two of his four children began vaping in middle school and “immediately became addicted.”
According to the most recent federal data, youth vaping rates declined steeply in 2021.
After San Francisco’s ban, teenagers in the city’s high schools were actually more likely to take up smoking than in other districts.
Another guy asked what would happen if the prohibition did not produce the intended results. He had a point: A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics found that after San Francisco’s ban on flavored vapes and tobacco products, teenagers in the city’s high schools were actually more likely to take up smoking than teenagers in other school districts. A similar paper in Nicotine & Tobacco Research suggests, too, that if “vape product sales were restricted to tobacco flavors,” one-third of US vapers aged 18 to 43 would switch to smoking. And yet another study, also in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, notes that teens who vape would probably be smoking cigarettes instead if vapes had never become available.
As Brian Fojtik, a prominent THR advocate, laid out at the hearing, the Food and Drug Administration is in the process of sorting out vaping regulations. It’s a complex and often-ridiculed process, but nonetheless—at least in theory—a scientific one. The agency is still reviewing premarket tobacco product applications (PMTAs), evaluating whether they’re “appropriate for the protection of public health.” (The FDA has also indicated that it will soon move on its own menthol cigarette ban, which some experts have warned could trigger illicit markets, risky do-it-yourself techniques and criminalization.)
But councils have no obligation to feign a rigorous evaluation of the science. And regardless of what happens on the federal level, it’s become clear that the future of US THR lies heavily in the hands of local politicians, swayed by their most vocal constituents.