Somerville Board of Health Restricts Sales of Menthol & E-Cigarettes

Citing concerns over youth health, Board restricts sales of certain products to 21+ adult-only tobacco retail stores. Somerville is first municipality in Commonwealth to adopt such regulation

Citing concerns over health impacts on youth, the Somerville Board of Health voted on December 13 to restrict the sale of electronic nicotine delivery systems (e-cigarettes) and menthol cigarettes in Somerville. The new regulations will end the practice of allowing such products to be sold in retail establishments open to youth. Starting April 1, 2019, the sale of both menthol and e-cigarettes will be restricted to 21+, adult-only tobacco retail stores. Somerville is the first municipality in the Commonwealth to pass such regulations.

The new regulations come as concern over the increasing popularity of e-cigarettes has grown both nationally and locally. Although e-cigarettes have been helpful to some adults seeking to transition off traditional tobacco products, they tend to be an entry to nicotine use for youths bringing various health impacts. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, e-cigarettes can harm the developing adolescent brain and research indicates that youth who use e-cigarettes are more likely to continue using cancer-causing nicotine or tobacco products long-term. Despite these risks, the national 2018 Youth Tobacco Survey revealed teen e-cigarette use is rising rapidly. From 2017 to 2018, the number of youth using e-cigarettes rose from 2.1 million to 3.6 million nationally, reflecting an increase of 78 percent among high school students and 48 percent among middle school students.

Due to the risks and rapid rise in e-cigarette use among teenagers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently enacted new regulations designed to restrict youth access to e-cigarettes, announced proposed new rules aimed at further reducing youth access and appeal, and indicated it would be seeking a ban on menthol in all tobacco products, which has been shown to have a similar appeal to youth.

Meanwhile, the usage data in Somerville reflects the national trends. The City’s 2018 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that while self-reported alcohol and traditional cigarette use in Somerville teens is declining, reported e-cigarette use almost doubled between 2016  and 2018. In that time, e-cigarette use rose from 7% to 13% total for middle and high school students, with 16% of high school seniors using e-cigs. In comparison, only 3% of students reported smoking traditional cigarettes.

“These products are being shamelessly marketed to teens, who have become their biggest users without fully understanding the health risks, which is why we’ve seen the Surgeon General calling for significant interventions to end this building public health crisis,” said Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone. “In Somerville, we are rising to that challenge by becoming an early adopter of these regulations and taking the necessary steps to stop the cycle of nicotine addiction among our young.”

The effort to introduce menthol and e-cigarette restrictions was the result of collaboration within the Somerville Health and Human Services Department and other community public health, substance abuse, and tobacco prevention specialists. Community members testified at the public hearing both in support of the changes and against, with local retailers expressing their concerns about the potential financial impact on their business due to the loss of selling menthol products.

“As the Board of Health, we work very hard to balance public health and business concerns. With that, our ultimate responsibility is to protect the health of Somerville residents, particularly youth,” said Board of Health member, Robert Ciccia.

In addition to the new regulations, the City’s Office of Prevention has been hosting student focus groups, discussions, and school assemblies on the dangers of vaping/e-cigarette use. In the new year, they will continue to host workshops, including focus groups for parents and multi-lingual discussions for students. 

“Through both our education and outreach efforts as well as these regulations, we are reinforcing our commitment to protect our youth from the effects of early nicotine exposure and tobacco use on brain development as well as the lifelong impacts on health and well-being,” said Director of Health and Human Services Doug Kress.

Additional Background and References 

 “The teen years are critical for brain development, which continues into young adulthood. Young people who use nicotine products in any form, including e-cigarettes, are uniquely at risk for long-lasting effects. Because nicotine affects the development of the brain's reward system, continued e-cigarette use can not only lead to nicotine addiction, but it also can make other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine more pleasurable to a teen's developing brain.12

Nicotine also affects the development of brain circuits that control attention and learning. Other risks include mood disorders and permanent problems with impulse control—failure to fight an urge or impulse that may harm oneself or others.”-- National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/electronic-cigarettes-e-cigarettes#ref

“E-cigarette aerosol is not harmless ‘water vapor,’ although it generally contains fewer toxicants than combustible tobacco products.” … “We know a great deal about what works to effectively prevent tobacco use among young people (USDHHS 2012). Now we must apply these strategies to e-cigarettes— and continue to apply them to other tobacco products. To achieve success, we must work together, aligning and coordinating efforts across a wide range of stakeholders, including individuals and families; public health professionals and clinicians; federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments; public health agencies; and researchers. We must protect our nation’s young people from a lifetime of nicotine addiction and associated problems by immediately addressing e-cigarettes as an urgent public health problem. Now is the time to take action.”  U.S. Department of Health, and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease, Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health. E-Cigarette Use Among Youth And Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General — Executive Summary.; 2016. https://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/2016ecigarettes/index.html