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Prioritize Maryland’s health: Remove flavored tobacco products from the market | COMMENTARY

Bill Bramhall's editorial cartoon for Sept. 15, 2019, following the announcement that President Donald Trump is planning to ban e-cigarette flavors other than tobacco to combat the growing number of minors using them.
Bill Bramhall's editorial cartoon for Sept. 15, 2019, following the announcement that President Donald Trump is planning to ban e-cigarette flavors other than tobacco to combat the growing number of minors using them. (Bill Bramhall/New York Daily News)

This year, the Maryland General Assembly has a historic opportunity to save lives, address racial health inequity, and support our economy by removing all flavored tobacco products — including menthol cigarettes — from the market. We strongly support this critical policy and urge state lawmakers to protect our youth and Black and brown communities.

Big Tobacco has one goal: profit. Since their products kill or gravely harm many of their customers, they need to recruit the next generation of users to maintain their revenue stream — our kids. The younger they are, the longer they will buy this highly-addictive, deadly and costly product throughout their lifetime.

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The tobacco industry has used countless ploys to target kids, from Flintstones cigarette ads in the ’60s to the Joe Camel mascot in the late ’80s. They recently introduced tobacco products in kid-friendly flavors like gummy bear, cotton candy and minty menthol. These flavors mask the harsh taste of tobacco, making it easier for kids to start and get trapped into a lifelong addiction. As a result, youth use of flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes has skyrocketed. One in four Maryland high school students currently uses e-cigarettes — a rate five times higher than adults. Not surprisingly, 80% of young people who have ever used tobacco started with a flavored product.

The U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that youth use of tobacco in any form, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe, causes addiction and can harm adolescent brain development, impacting attention, memory, impulse control, mood and learning. And a recent Stanford University School of Medicine study found that young people who vaped were five to seven times more likely to be infected by COVID-19 than those who did not use e-cigarettes.

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And it’s not just kids Big Tobacco has their sights on. Since the 1960s, tobacco companies have aggressively targeted the Black community with their menthol flavored products, leading to a devastating and unequal burden of death and disease. Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of lung cancer than any other demographic group in Maryland and to suffer heart disease at a rate 56% higher than white Marylanders.

Efforts to improve Black health are particularly important, given the devastating impact of COVID-19. Black Americans are dying at higher rates due in part to underlying chronic diseases — which, more than anything, are caused by tobacco use.

Menthol flavored cigarettes are a social justice issue we must address head-on.

Fortunately, our state legislators have a solution. Del. Jazz Lewis and Sen. Mary Washington have introduced legislation in the 2021 General Assembly that would end the sale of all flavored tobacco — including menthol cigarettes — in our state.

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While this legislation (Senate Bill 177 and House Bill 134) seems like a no-brainer, some question the tax revenue implications. We are here to tell you that ending the sale of flavored tobacco products isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the fiscally smart thing to do. By allowing flavored tobacco to create a new generation of smokers, we ensure illness and death will impact thousands of Marylanders each year in the decades ahead. Today, 7,500 Marylanders die each year from tobacco-related causes, costing Marylanders $2.7 billion in health care every year, far exceeding any tax revenue we gain from their sale.

But don’t just take our word for it. According to a recent study by the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, ending sales of flavored tobacco products in Maryland is consistent with a strong economy and fiscal responsibility.

Big Tobacco and their allies in Annapolis are fighting hard to protect their profits rather than protecting the health of our kids and Black and brown residents. They profit from the sale of flavored tobacco, and they do not have Marylanders’ health as their highest priority. But we must.

Our most vulnerable residents’ well-being hinges on government leaders taking a stand against special interests and the Big Tobacco profits at this critical moment. We strongly urge the General Assembly to pass legislation ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products. Lives depend on it.

Peter Franchot (pfranchot@marylandtaxes.gov) is the Maryland Comptroller and Dr. Enid Neptune (eneptune@jhmi.edu) is a pulmonologist and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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