Mainers of good conscience are outraged about the U.S. Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, a decision that could lead to the reversal of other gains won in the courts based on the concept of a right to privacy, like access to contraception, interracial marriage, gay marriage, or even gay sex. We think we know who our oppressors are: five Justices with a medieval conception of human rights and the Republican Senators who put them in power for life; most notably, “Our Senator,” Susan Collins, who opposes codifying Roe via federal law, citing the blatant lie that the bill to do so would force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions.
What we need are more liberal legislators, the thinking goes, Democrats and progressive independents who will defend our right to control our own bodies. But I’ve got some news for you, lefty friends, and it ain’t good.
Lawmakers in some of Maine’s most liberal communities have eagerly and unanimously voted to strip us all of our right to enjoy one of life’s simple pleasures. They’ve enlisted the cops and the courts to enforce this mandate, adding a vast number of relatively harmless — and, in fact, often beneficial or even life-saving— substances to the long list of illegal chemical compounds (e.g., heroin, meth, crack) that must be purged from our borders at gunpoint, if necessary. In their zeal to wield state power to control harmless human behavior, these erstwhile liberal legislators are every bit as autocratic as the black-robed goons who dominate the nation’s highest court.
I’m writing, of course, about efforts to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, especially flavored e-cigarettes and vape juice, the most popular alternatives for nicotine addicts trying to improve their health and lengthen their lives. The despots on the Bangor City Council led the way here in Maine, followed by those ruling Portland and Brunswick. The bans went into effect June 1. There’s also a bill, sponsored by Democratic State Rep. Michele Meyer of Eliot, to enforce Flavor Prohibition statewide. That legislation didn’t pass this year, but it’s bound to come back like a bad penny next time around. In the meantime, more Maine towns and cities are being pressured by corporate-led lobbying groups, like Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, to enact their own mini-bans.
Let’s get the obligatory disclosure out of the way right away: I’m one of those addicts. Formerly a pack-a-day smoker of full-strength American Spirits, I switched to favored e-cigs many years ago on the advice of Mainer columnist and bluesman Samuel James, who told me how his decision to forgo smoke for vapor dramatically improved his lung capacity and overall health.
As usual, Sam was right: it’s been great! E-cigs are so much cheaper than cancer sticks, and they don’t cause cancer or other serious respiratory afflictions.* They don’t stink up your breath or your clothes or your car or your cab or your home, and secondhand vapor is even safer than the firsthand stuff. Only got a minute to get your fix? Just take a few e-puffs; no need to stub out your butt and save it for later, which inevitably makes your pocket or purse reek like an ashtray. And there’s no inducement to litter, no marine-toxic filters tossed on the streets and sidewalks awaiting a hard rain to wash them into Casco Bay.
The flavors of vape juice are deliciously diverse: “fruit, menthol, mint, wintergreen, chocolate, cocoa, vanilla, honey … candy, dessert, alcoholic beverage, herb, or spice.” That’s not my list; it’s the language in Portland’s favor-ban ordinance. It’s downright chilling to imagine the city’s lawyers racking their reptilian brains to make sure every type of flavor a human might enjoy is included on the list of verboten taste sensations. Who are these psychos?
Plus, vaping allows addicts to wean themselves off nicotine at their own pace. You can get juice containing very little nicotine or no nicotine at all. That’s one strong reason why the Food and Drug Administration has authorized numerous vaping products for sale: to improve public health. However, the FDA has not authorized any flavored tobacco products for the same purpose, and recently moved to ban menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars.
The Flavor Haters have an excuse for their Puritanical dictates, and on its face it seems like a pretty good one: we need to stop children from becoming addicted to nicotine. But let’s be clear: there’s already a law prohibiting the sale of any tobacco products to children and young adults under 21. The obvious fact that police have failed to effectively enforce this law protecting minors hardly justifies new laws compelling them to investigate and prosecute retailers for selling flavored tobacco to adults of legal age.
Has the Portland Police Department ever lifted a finger to try to stop the sale of tobacco to kids? Apart from (maybe) providing signs about the law to stores, I’ve never seen any evidence of a law-enforcement effort on that front. By contrast, the local cops love to pull off those little sting operations whereby they bring a youthful cadet to a store or bar to try to buy booze, then bust the cashier/server for failing to card the undercover agent and provide the names of all the places that failed their gotcha test to news outlets, which dutifully disseminate the list of busted businesses facing hefty fines.
Are most youthful vapers even buying their wares at the stores adults patronize? No, hardly at all. A 2017 federal government survey found that only 13.6 percent of kids acquired vape products that way. I was a minor once, too, and my budding beer buddies and I had all sorts of ways to procure alcohol back in the day, like older siblings, older siblings’ boyfriends, free-thinking or forgetful parents, theft (from stores and homes), forgery (i.e., fake IDs), bribing strangers in poor urban neighborhoods, trading store merchandise for beer, and so on. This was well before cell phones and the Internet, mind you, which have made it infinitely easier to score everything. As such prohibitions always do, this latest one will inspire a thousand crimes for every infraction it prevents.
Nicotine is the problem, right? But unlike alcohol Prohibition and the endless Drug War, this isn’t a ban imposed on the addictive substance itself. It’s the eradication of any flavors that make consumption of nicotine in its least harmful forms attractive to those who might otherwise take up or continue smoking.
When vaping got popular last decade, proponents boasted that it promised to save “a billion lives.” That may be an overestimation. Public health experts estimate that mere millions of lives have been extended thus far thanks to the option of vaping. In 2017, researchers at Georgetown University pegged the figure at 6.6 million cigarette smokers living a total of 86.7 million more years under public health policies that encourage vaping as an alternative to butts. Those estimates are certainly far too low for today, given the dramatic rise of vaping’s popularity over the past five years — a rise driven almost entirely by the sale of flavored e-cigs and vape juice.
But screw the adults — let ’em croak early; the lines for weekend brunch downtown will be that much shorter. This is about saving children, and what monster could be against that? Granted, when they (hopefully) grow into adulthood a few years hence, the much healthier, life-saving alternative to smoking will be much less attractive or available should the urge to indulge in nicotine arise, and millions of ex-children will just smoke instead, or hit the black markets online and take their chances inhaling whatever shows up in the mail.
Did I mention that Donald Trump wanted to ban flavored tobacco nationwide during his presidency? This bullshit is truly bipartisan, because as government policies go — as ex-Smoker in Chief Barack Obama might say — it’s an easy layup. There’s almost no organized public opposition, and politicians get to look like they give a damn about public health when every other piece of available evidence proves beyond a doubt that they don’t care at all.
I mean, excuse me, but is the same government that just caused over a million domestic deaths by its criminally negligent response to COVID-19 now lecturing me about the mortal dangers of banana-cream vape juice? It’s so much easier to rip things away from people than it is to build things that better our lives. This is the same moral-free government that won’t provide universal health care or enact the climate policies necessary to ensure our precious children aren’t one of the last generations living on a habitable planet. But go off, Kings and Queens, about your deep concern that Little Johnny might Juul.
Hell, how about air pollution? In a report published last year, the American Lung Association revealed that “Portland reported a worsened level of year-round particle pollution, and Bangor fell off the ‘cleanest 25 cities for year-round particle pollution’ due to lack of data.” But never fear! The bold officials in those cities are leading the charge against respiratory and heart disease with their brilliant new War Against Flavor!
The delusion fogging all these lawmakers’ minds is the assumption that they can stop young people from wanting to alter their mood. That task is akin to trying to cockblock the wind.
News flash: teenager-hood is, by definition, rebellion, the prime time in life to push against social boundaries, especially those related to pleasure or stress-relief. And, for more teens than ever, these years suck, badly. Really badly. Like, national-crisis-of-teen-suicide-and-depression-and-anxiety-and-drug-addiction-and-overdose level terrible. In response to an existence increasingly beset by anxiety, deprivation, hopelessness and loneliness, a small percentage (7.6 percent of middle- and high-schoolers in 2021) seek to slightly alter their mood with puffs on e-cigarettes. By all means, let’s alienate these children more! Criminalize this ancient impulse and drive it deeper into the shadows, where it’s most dangerous! Take away every flavor they might savor, and not just until they’re 21, but forever!
The message to teens is clear: We don’t trust you to make choices impacting your own health. (Sound familiar, ladies?) You might become addicted to nicotine, and if that happens we must ensure the safest way to manage your addiction is as unpleasant as possible. No aroma other than the acrid flavor of burnt leaves shall pass your sinful lips! Beat back the devilish temptation through sheer willpower! Meanwhile, we’ll sit back and do jack shit to improve any of the material conditions of your life that made you want to catch a little buzz in the first place.
You know poor people smoke more than the rich, right? That’s surely part of this unholy Anti-Flavor Crusade — the upper-crusties pooh-poohing the filthy habits of the working masses. (Though it’s always fun to watch the Crusters, after a few free drinks at the wedding reception, bumming butts off the waitress and the busser by the dumpster.) The same FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey that found only 7.6 percent of kids vape at all also reported that tobacco use overall is much higher among lesbian, gay or bisexual teens (14.2 percent) and trans kids (18.9 percent). Tobacco use by students who reported experiencing “severe psychological distress” last year was at 14.2 percent.
Again, by all means, let’s make it harder for these kids to attain even the mildest, most fleeting escape from their current mental condition. They must be made to feel not just bad and ashamed for wanting nicotine’s cheap little rush, but also criminal, subject to discipline, suspension, expulsion and prosecution. Young Mainers are dying right now for lack of affordable mental-health and substance-use treatment, but rather than even attempt to fix that, these prigs are yanking Strawberry Parfait Vapetasia out of local smoke shops — where, again, even teens who vape don’t buy juice.
Though I hesitate to bring this up for fear of giving these pinheads more bright ideas, aren’t there other, more dangerous and socially destructive addictions they should be worried about? For example, gambling can really fuck you up. That addiction ruins entire families, for generations. The state prohibits minors from gambling, but kids get their paws on scratch tickets all the time, and damned if those lottery games aren’t the most colorful, cartoonish, child-enticing gateways to destruction one can imagine!
Should we ban gambling next, or at least every iteration of it that’s fun, like horseracing and March Madness? Nah. Maine’s still spending millions of public dollars on slick ad campaigns to sucker us into wasting our last few bucks on its impossible lotto schemes, and Gov. Janet Mills just signed a law legalizing sports betting, so that hellish addiction will only get a hell of a lot worse. Oh, well.
Booze is still a major slayer of Mainers. Alcohol-related deaths in our state spiked nearly 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and the ongoing pandemic has brought problem-drinking behaviors to dizzying new heights. If the only alcoholic beverage available for sale tasted like fresh Scotch, teen and adult drinking rates would certainly plummet and lives would be saved, eh? So how ’bout it, Portland City Councilors? Will you follow the sound logic of Flavor Prohibition and enact a ban on flavored alcohol this year?
Or maybe flavored weed should be next. Do the Godly citizens of Brunswick know their Town Council countenances the sale of such Satanic confections as pot-infused gummies covered in Nerds within the bounds of their fair burgh? Better to make ’em sneak joints in the woods like we used to do. It’s much safer out there among the ticks.
Then there’s candy candy and all the health-destroying, disease-inducing, addictive junk food fantastically displayed at child’s eye–level in every convenience store in the state. Diabetes and heart disease collectively killed well over 3,000 Mainers in 2017, according to the CDC. Deaths from vaping in Maine that year (and every year before or since): zilch. But Bangor’s on it. The only items they’re banning from Cumby’s to protect children’s health are the few items behind the counter that kids are already banned from buying.
Sometimes I wonder what’s more galling: the idiotic ineptitude of these “liberal” lawmakers or their rank hypocrisy. Then I remember: Oh yeah, it’s that they want to make it impossible for me or anyone else to ever enjoy a puff of nicotine vapor again, because maybe 1 of every 13 teens tried an e-cig last year, and the faddish follies of children now delineate the rights of adults in these United States.
I must admit that Portland’s flavor ban won’t affect me much. I live in town but get my vape products across the bridge in South Portland, from the helpful and knowledgeable folks at Portland Smoke and Vape. So SoPo gets my sales tax dollars (after the state sends back their share) and all of that business’ jobs and property tax revenue and associated economic activity, while Portland reaps its reward in pure self-righteousness, which has yet to help pay to pave a road. Should SoPo or the State of Maine ban flavored vapes, I’ll do what most price-conscious liquor drinkers in Maine do and shop just over the border in New Hampshire.
Massachusetts banned flavored vapes and menthol smokes in 2019 and, by no coincidence, tobacco sales skyrocketed in neighboring states, increasing by 22 percent in New Hampshire and 18 percent in Rhode Island, according to a study published this year by the Tax Foundation. The Bay State lost $116 million in cigarette-tax revenue alone (not including lost sales tax revenue and another $125 million from smokeless tobacco sales), the Foundation found. Plus, the state police and tax authorities in Massachusetts now have a massive new problem on their hands: vape smuggling.
Public radio station WGBH reported this March that Massachusetts authorities “made 213,550 seizures of vape products” last year (the state’s anti-tobacco task force calls them “electronic nicotine delivery systems”). “The Task Force now identifies the cross-border smuggling of untaxed flavored [vape] products, cigars, and menthol cigarettes as the primary challenge for tobacco enforcement in the Commonwealth,” the state government’s report states.
So stopping kids from smoking is no longer the primary task for Massachusetts’ tobacco-enforcement authorities; it’s somewhere below investigating retail sales-tax evasion on the “to do” list. Much of the heroin and fentanyl killing Mainers these days still comes here via the Bay State. Nice to know the Massachusetts State Police have the additional time, staff and resources to devote to the crucial task of intercepting hundreds of thousands of vape pens.
We can be sure that exactly zero lives will be spared by any of this law-enforcement work. But we’ll have the deep satisfaction of knowing some jonesin’ Masshole is, at this very moment, high-tailing it to the Granite State Line in his gas-guzzling pickup because he craves a delightful hint of mint.
Mission accomplished, Massachusetts! Maine and our great Nation are watching your enlightened progress and aiming to follow your lead!
God save us all.
*That dopey “popcorn lung” scare a couple years ago was caused by cheap black-market marijuana vapes, not the brand-name e-cigs or liquids sold in stores, though we can expect many more deaths from similar causes as nicotine vapers turn to the black market to get their flavor fix.