Hundreds of convenience store owners throughout Massachusetts shuttered their doors on Wednesday and rallied in front of the State House in opposition to legislation that would limit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.
The protest follows a statewide ban on all vaping products, which were pulled from stores after the widespread diagnosis of vaping-related illnesses that has proven fatal in three cases in Massachusetts.
Wearing T-shirts with slogans like “We Protect Minors,’’ the store owners said the effort to restrict sales is an overreach that jeopardizes the legal sale of tobacco products to adults. Many argued the proposed ban would put them out of business and push the highly regulated sales of flavored tobacco products across state lines, and into the black market. The Boston Public Health Commission has also proposed restrictions that would limit the sale of mint and menthol nicotine and tobacco products to adult-only tobacco shops.
“We have nothing to do with vaping; they take that as an excuse to remove products that have been controlled for close to 100 years in convenience stores,’’ said Francisco Marte, president of the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association, which represents 127 owners of more than 300 stores in the city.
He said Food and Drug Administration findings show that convenience store owners nationwide have a 95 percent rate of compliance with laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco-related products to minors. And since Massachusetts tightened its age restrictions earlier this year, raising the age of tobacco sales to 21, it’s become even harder for underage youth to get their hands on tobacco products.
“An adult that is 21 years old, I think, is old enough to make’’ his or her “own decision,’’ he said.
Humayun Morshed, who owns Rosario Groceryin Dorchester, said he supports the vaping ban, but feels that singling out mint and menthol products is racist. According to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization that promotes efforts to ban smoking, 85 percent of black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes, as opposed to about 29 percent of white smokers.
“It’s all legal tobacco, and if you want to ban tobacco, why not ban everything?’’ Morshed said. “They’re saying tobacco is bad for health. But they are targeting minorities. They’re talking about young kids, but it’s not young kids.’’
Public health officials counter that flavored tobacco products pose a real risk to minors, who have been lured into both smoking and vaping through the sale of menthol cigarettes or e-cigarette flavor pods. That’s what propelled Senator John Keenan to file the bill in the first place.
“Far more than adults, young people are attracted to cooling and sweet flavors like mint, menthol, and cherry,’’ said Keenan, a Democrat from Quincy, in an e-mailed statement. “The only chance we have at protecting our kids is banning flavors outright so the industry can’t target them anymore.’’
And research has found that banning menthol cigarettes can actually counter the disproportionate amount of advertising used by cigarette manufacturers to target young African-Americans.
But Jon Hurst, head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, argues the loss of flavored tobacco sales will hurt state revenues. He said flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes account for $246 million in state taxes.
“This is really about consumer choice,’’ he said. “Does the government know better than the consumer could and should?’’
Michael Siegel, a professor in the Boston University School of Public Health, says lawmakers need to think carefully about their approach to regulating smoking products. He supports removing menthol cigarettes from stores — he believes all cigarettes should be banned. But he thinks that the state’s vaping ban should be revisited, and that removing flavored e-cigarettes from the market blocks smokers from accessing a product that can help them quit smoking cigarettes.
“What the Legislature is doing is . . . saying, ‘We don’t want any kid to go into a store and buy an e-cigarette,’’’ he said. “But we’re perfectly happy with them going into a convenience store and buy a real cigarette that will kill them.’’
Should the restrictions against menthol cigarettes go into effect, it would be only the latest blow to area convenience stores, said Jon Shaer, the executive director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association.
Store owners are already under siege, he said, dealing with plastic bag bans, increased tariffs and excise taxes, rising gas taxes, and discussions about taking the state lottery system online. He said that tobacco accounts for upwards of 50 percent of revenue in convenience stores, particularly in urban markets, and 30 percent of those sales are of flavored menthol cigarettes.
Cigarette smokers are their most frequent customers, but they’re also buying items like bread and milk, Shaer said. To lose those shoppers could decimate stores’ bottom lines.
That’s why, he said, more than 1,000 stores statewide shuttered their doors on Wednesday.
“We had to take an extreme measure to demonstrate to city and state leaders how important convenience stores are to their communities, and the drastic impact the removal of menthol and mint tobacco products will have on our ability to serve those communities,’’ he said. “Convenience stores are taken for granted.’’