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Vermont’s flavored tobacco ban bill attracted surge in lobbying, ad spending before governor’s veto

A flier reads "Flavored Tobacco Ban" crossed out with "Oppose a statewide ban on flavored tobacco in vermont" beneath it. To the right is a QR code with text reading "Scan the QR code to let vermont lawmakers know you're against a statewide flavored tobacco ban for adults." Beneath that it says "Prohibition didn't work for alcohol, it won't work for tobacco." At the bottom in small print, it lists the company behind the ad, "Citizens for Tobacco Rights is operated on behalf of Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., John Middleton, Helix Innovations, and NJOY"
April McCullum
Vermont Public
Retailers across the state posted flyers with QR codes for people to contact their legislators to oppose the ban.

After almost five years of effort, this year the Legislature passed a bill banning flavored tobacco and vaping products, including menthols, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott last month.

The bill attracted the highest amount of advertising spending on any single issue this year, as groups focused on public health pushed for the ban, and tobacco companies and retailers fought it.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids spent just over $381,000 on advertising, state disclosure data shows, accounting for more than half of ad spending this year.

Katherine Levasseur, campaign manager for Flavors Hook Kids Vermont Coalition, which is principally funded by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, described the campaign as grassroots and multi-faceted, including a letter-writing campaign and ads on social media, news websites and radio.

“We had to get really creative, and that meant identifying and mobilizing volunteers to make sure that legislators were hearing from Vermonters how impactful this issue was and continues to be to them,” Levasseur said.

On the anti-ban side, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association spent $65,000 on digital ads. Additionally, many retailers carried flyers with QR codes linking Vermonters to a form letter — spending that is not required to be disclosed.

Companies opposing the flavored tobacco ban spent more money on formal lobbying — hiring professionals to argue one’s case before lawmakers and monitor legislation. Most of the anti-ban lobbying was on behalf of subsidiaries of Altria Group and Reynolds American Inc., two large American tobacco companies.

Altria Group, Reynolds American Inc., and the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, the two largest lobbying spenders and top advertising spender for the anti-ban campaign, did not respond to requests for comment.

Vermonters responded to the flurry of advertising by contacting officials about the tobacco question. The governor received around 360 messages by phone and through the state’s official Contact the Governor form, with about 53% in favor of the ban and 47% opposed to it, said the governor’s spokesperson Jason Maulucci.

Of people in favor of a ban, 76% called in, while the remainder emailed.

Scott said he saw the bill as “hypocritical and out of step with other initiatives that have passed into law recently and over time,” particularly the 2020 legalization of cannabis (which includes flavored products) and the legal sale of flavored alcohol.

After the governor’s veto, lawmakers said they would not attempt an override vote. The legislation had not garnered the two-thirds majority that would be needed to pass despite the governor’s objection.

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Corrected: May 10, 2024 at 11:34 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of calls in favor of a ban. 76% of people in favor of a ban called the governor’s office.
Corrected: May 9, 2024 at 1:38 PM EDT
An earlier version of this article misspelled Katherine Levasseur's last name.
Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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