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D.C. Council weighs banning flavored e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes

David Edwards, manager of Vape Social, vapes at the shop in Gaithersburg, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Anti-tobacco advocates on Thursday urged the D.C. Council to add menthol cigarettes to its list of banned items as lawmakers consider prohibiting all flavored vaping products in the nation’s capital.

The testimony came during a five-hour hearing on bills meant to rein in youth vaping and the rise of electronic cigarettes.

But advocates also revived a decades-old fight over menthol cigarettes, a minty flavor disproportionately marketed to and used by African Americans.

“Menthol cigarettes have been killing our citizens for decades and decades and decades, and we can really send a message we are not going to put up with it,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The most-discussed bill in the District would prohibit the sale of any flavored e-cigarette product, a policy adopted in other major urban hubs including New York City, San Francisco and Minneapolis. Advocates say banning flavors such as cotton candy and strawberry milk can dissuade young people from forming a nicotine habit.

President Trump originally announced a comprehensive flavored e-cigarette ban but has since scaled back the proposal to exclude tank-based products commonly sold at vape shops.

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While electronic cigarettes have captured more attention as a new product, some African American civic leaders and anti-tobacco advocates say menthol must also be targeted.

Kemry Hughes, a civic activist who lives in Southeast Washington, said he’s seen the effects of decades of tobacco advertising in overwhelmingly black Ward 8, including community events sponsored by menthol cigarette brands.

“This aggressive targeted marketing has paid off,” Hughes said. “African American smokers both old and young overwhelmingly prefer menthol cigarettes.”

Thursday’s testimony was lopsided in favor of anti-tobacco measures, but several employees of Capital Vape Shop on U Street defended flavored vaping.

Peter Kehlenbrink said he turned to vaping while trying to quit drinking, finding low levels of nicotine effective at helping him stay sober.

“Flavors have been a big part of that success because of my aversion to the taste of tobacco,” said Kehlenbrink, a customer turned employee at the shop. “Most likely, I would go back to cigarettes in an attempt to curb my cravings.”

Geoffrey Gibson, the owner of the vape shop, said it was unfair that the council wanted to target flavored vaping while traditional cigarettes and flavored liquor are on sale.

“If flavors are so harmful to use, how can the D.C. Council and the District of Columbia let gummy-bear- and cotton-candy-flavored vodkas stay on the shelves?” he said.

The Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety heard public testimony on e-cigarette legislation, a precursor to amending and voting on the bills. Advocates urged lawmakers to pass the bills quickly so they can take effect in October, the start of a new budget year.

District officials previously targeted vaping by raising the age for buying tobacco to 21 and prohibiting vaping at bars and restaurants several years ago. But advocates say more aggressive measures are needed to stop a new generation of nicotine addicts.

“The tobacco companies kept us from controlling nicotine and the effect of smoking tobacco for decades,” said Council Member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who is proposing the flavor ban. “Thousands and thousands of people died because of their public relations and lobbying efforts. Let’s not let them get another foothold with e-cigarettes.”

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D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) has filed a lawsuit against Juul, alleging that the e-cigarette maker deliberately marketed its product to teens and misled customers about its addictive quality.

Lawmakers and advocates repeatedly spoke about how the stigma surrounding traditional cigarettes has been overtaken by the popularity of vaping. Survey data shows rising vaping among high school students.

“It’s everywhere around us,” said Jennifer Spear, a student at School Without Walls. “A lot of kids who I have talked to about why they vape say it’s because it’s cool, it’s a trend, it’s viralized.”

Matthew Magyar, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital, said he treated an adolescent girl who was struggling to breathe and had a throat so inflamed she could not take medication by mouth. Doctors concluded her symptoms were tied to vaping.

If e-cigarettes didn’t mask the harsh taste of tobacco with sweet flavors, young people would be less likely to get hooked, Magyar said.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) have said they are skeptical about outright bans.

“I don’t think that the way to deal with young people and smoking or e-cigarettes is simply to prohibit them,” Mendelson said in November. “We have a long history where prohibition leads to a lot of illegal behavior.”

Bowser sounded similar notes, although her administration’s health department supports the flavor ban and has issued an advisory urging residents not to use electronic cigarettes in light of recent deaths connected to vaping.

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“I generally do think adults can make decisions for themselves, but I am really pretty horrified by what we have seen from that product and the safety of the product,” Bowser said.

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