By Anastasia E. Lennon
BU News Service
Sen. John Keenan and local schoolchildren rallied outside the House Chamber on Tuesday afternoon in support of a statewide ban on all flavored tobacco products, just hours after the House advanced its own flavor ban bill.
“We will not let this generation down,” the Quincy Democrat said. “They came to us and asked for our help. Look at these beautiful faces, they’ve decided to stand up, to advocate on behalf of their peers. It’s up to us as legislators to stand with them in standing up for their generation.”
In January, Keenan filed a bill that would ban all flavored tobacco products not just for e-cigarettes, but for cigars and traditional cigarettes as well. A new draft of his bill was submitted to the Public Health Committee in late September – just two days after Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide ban on all vaping products took effect – and has since been referred to the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee.
Both the Senate and House bills include mint and menthol in the flavor ban, which has caused contention among business owners, some of whom protested last week by closing shops and rallying at the State House.
According to a spokesperson, Keenan initially filed this legislation after meeting with students from Holbrook who were concerned about the “teen vaping epidemic” at their school.
“I used to have a really close friend since fifth grade and he started Juul-ing in eighth grade,” said Bryan Moss, a ninth grader from Holbrook Middle-High School. “After a few months he got addicted, he’d stop hanging out with us. Seeing how it changed him in just two to three years, it’s crazy.”
Moss said students in his school sometimes place bets on how openly they can use a tobacco vaporizer in school without getting caught. At one point, the school even removed the doors to the bathrooms, which students started calling the “Juul room,” he said.
Among Massachusetts high school students, 41 percent of the nearly 9,000 surveyed in 2017 reported using a vape product, according to a youth risk behavior survey conducted by the state’s secondary education and public health departments.
Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes has jumped to 5.3 million, a 47 percent increase from 2018. Electronic cigarettes were also the most used tobacco product by a significant margin.
Reese and Lorelei, two sixth graders from Holbrook, said their peers are “way too young” to do use the product and want to put a stop to it.
“It’s become such a normal thing in our town that it’s no longer a distraction,” said Rachel Cohan, 17, a senior at Holbrook. She said this activity has been normalized.
Many of the students from Holbrook are part of the 84 Club, a youth-led organization sponsored by Health Resources in Action. Other students are part of the school’s civics club.
“We’re a public health organization and we work to mobilize and protect young people from tobacco,” said Kathleen McCabe, the managing director of Health Resources in Action. “Our focus over the last few years has been on racial justice … predatory marketing particularly in black communities.”
Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, addressed these racial disparities at the press conference and said she supports the inclusion of menthol in the flavor ban so that African-American communities have better life expectancy.
After Keenan spoke, the students divided into groups and were led by aides to knock on the doors of representatives throughout the State House. One group spoke with Reps. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat, and Josh Cutler, a Duxbury Democra,t who said he would vote in favor of the ban during tomorrow’s formal House session.
“Our hope is that you’ll have an influence today convincing the people who represent you that you count, that your futures count, and that they will do the right thing,” said Keenan. “We’re smart enough to know when we see an industry putting profits ahead of the future of these young people. We have an opportunity tomorrow at the House and next week in state Senate to send a clear message.”
This article was originally published in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.