GREENWICH — Greer Levy, a junior at Greenwich High School, has seen the debilitating effects of tobacco use on her father, who regularly stops to pick up a pack of Marlboro Lights.
He once tried to quit cigarettes by switching to a flavored-tobacco product because he thought it was a less harmful option, but he ended up using both, Levy said.
Vaping is also becoming common among her classmates, Levy said. In 2019, the PTA funded a pilot program to purchase vaping detectors for two of the bathrooms at GHS.
“When the nicotine product is flavored, my friends are more likely to give in and try it,” Levy added. But after she took a “hit” from a schoolmate’s vape, Levy said she had a coughing fit and never tried it again.
It hurts me to know that all of my friends might be addicted their entire lives because they wanted to try what the flavor pineapple-lemonade tasted like. I don’t want them to wind up being part of the 16 million Americans who are living with a disease caused by smoking,” Levy said during a Public Health Committee hearing on a bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in the state.
“I don’t want them to end up with a crippling addiction like my father,” she testified.
Since Levy’s testimony in February, advocacy organizations have worked to garner support for SB-326, which the Public Health Committee passed in a 25-8 vote. Greenwich Together, a coalition of more than 30 local stakeholders who support young people, and the American Lung Association in Connecticut are among those advocating for the bill.
Clearing the market of flavored tobacco products has been discussed nationwide for more than a decade and the issue gained momentum in Connecticut recently. The idea was included in a 2019 bill that raised the age to buy tobacco in the state from 18 to 21, but as that bill moved through the legislative process to become a law, the provision addressing flavored products was removed.
A standalone bill to remove flavored tobacco products from the market in Connecticut was introduced in 2020 but did not make it far in the legislative process, due to the COVID-19 crisis, said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Democrat from Westport and co-chair of the Public Health Committee, which introduced the bill.
A bill with a different name but the same content, SB326, was reintroduced this year and supporters said they’re working hard to ensure it becomes a law. The bill still needs to pass in the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee as well as in the Senate and the House, said Ruth Canovi, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Connecticut.
As part of his budget plan, Gov. Ned Lamont has also introduced, HB6450, which would also remove flavored e-cigarettes from the market.
California, Massachusetts and more than 100 municipalities across the country have passed similar comprehensive policies to ban flavored tobacco products, Canovi said.
The American Lung Association in Connecticut earlier this year wrote a letter to state lawmakers pushing for the bill; Greenwich Together and dozens of other groups signed onto the letter in support.
In its fight against vaping, Greenwich Together cited the results of its 2018 youth survey, which showed consistent increases in the use of alcohol, marijuana and electronic cigarettes by high school students in town. In 2019, Greenwich Together received a five-year federal grant, totaling $500,000, to address the problem.
One of the group’s main initiatives is to reduce the use of nicotine by teens, especially through vaping, said Ellen Brezovsky, assistant director of prevention and outreach for Greenwich-based Kids in Crisis and a prevention coordinator of the Greenwich Together coalition.
The group’s survey results showed that local kids use nicotine more by vaping, than through traditional cigarettes, Brezovsky said.
After declines in teen cigarette use over the years, experts are now seeing an uptick in cigarette use among youth. Often, those teens try a flavored-tobacco product and become addicted, opening a gateway to using traditional cigarettes, Brezovsky said.
“The e-cigarette manufacturers put it out there and advertise it as a way to quit smoking, but it’s really had the opposite effect for teens,” she said.
In Connecticut, 4,900 adults die each year due to the effects of smoking, according to Tobacco Free Kids, an advocacy organization working to reduce tobacco use. If the state does not change health policies and consumer behavior, 56,000 children who are alive today will die prematurely from smoking, according to the group’s website.
Tobacco companies spent $64.5 million to market their products in Connecticut last year alone, according to Tobacco Free Kids.
Optimistic about passage
Steinberg, co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said he believes SB-326 bill will pass, “depending on the final shape.”
Opponents are concerned that the state could lose as much as $100 million in tax revenue if flavored tobacco products are banned, Steinberg said. But the Public Health Committee is focused on the health impacts of smoking, not on the tax revenue it generates, he added.
“But we are aware of the fact that it’s a significant chunk of money, which we may have to address,” Steinberg said.
But Canovi, of the American Lung Association in Connecticut, said state leaders must take strong action to protect kids from becoming the next generation of tobacco users. Opponents of the bill focus on tax revenue losses, she said, but don’t always account for the billions of dollars spent on health care every year because of tobacco use in Connecticut.
Passage of the bill, Brezovsky said, would be “a really positive step forward,” but she said, community members must also continue educating the public about the dangers of all types of smoking.