Some flavored tobacco products might not be around in Washington for much longer.
Senate Bill 5380, which had a hearing Monday in Olympia, would ban some kinds of tobacco products in the state, a move that the measure’s supporters say will keep kids off nicotine but opponents say will hurt the economy and limit free choice.
“Limiting tobacco products that are particularly appealing to young people—the flavored and the candy-like—is a major step toward our goal of keeping all kids from starting to use tobacco,” said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky.
She argued that young people are curious about tobacco products that taste good and people who start using a nicotine product before they are 18 are more likely to use tobacco for the rest of their lives, driving up healthcare costs in the state.
The bill would ban tobacco products that have an aroma or flavor other than tobacco or menthol, that are marketed as such or that come in dissolvable, capsule form. It would also require all tobacco products to be displayed somewhere they are not directly accessible to buyers and it would allow county-level jurisdictions to pass tobacco regulations that are stricter than state ones.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, it would lead to a loss of tax revenue of about $21 million for the state in the 2011-13 biennium, though supporters of the bill said that the health benefits of keeping young people off tobacco would offset those losses.
Tobacco retailers in the state argued that they were saddled with enough restrictions already and that the Legislature should focus on enforcing existing laws, which prohibit anyone under 18 from buying tobacco, if their goal was to keep flavored tobacco products away from children.
Mark Johnson of the Washington Retail Association said that the bill would be particularly harmful to small retailers who rely on the money that tobacco products bring in.
Jeff Packer, owner of the Tinder Box tobacco store in Tacoma said the bill was a “disaster financially,” that would cut into his profits and would limit adults’ rights in the state.
“This bill represents an attack on personal liberty of adults to choose for themselves the activity they find relaxing and enjoyable,” Packer said.
Republicans on the Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, which held the hearing on the bill, agreed with Packer’s argument.
Sen. Janea Holmquist-Newbry of Moses Lake, the ranking Republican member on the committee, said the bill could limit free choice for adults and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, argued that the bill would add more restrictions than necessary to achieve its purpose.
“It seems to me that the answer to this is really, I think, rather simple,” King said, referring to the regulation of flavored tobacco products. “Rather than outlawing, why don’t we just require that they’re kept behind the counter?”
Supporters, including Jim Cooper of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention and Nick Federici of the American Cancer Society said the problem with flavored products was that they often seemed to be designed specifically to appeal to children, with products that look and taste like breath mints or that have flavors including chocolate chip cookie dough and banana split.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat and the chairwoman of the committee, said she expected the bill to be amended before it had a vote. She said she was concerned that the language of the bill was too broad and could include some cigars and other products that do not target children.