Massachusetts convenience stores struggling with sales during the coronavirus pandemic are bracing for the second half of a 1-2 punch.
Store owners expect business to take another hit with the June 1 enactment of Gov. Charlie Baker’s ban on menthol, mint and wintergreen tobacco products. Some want the first-in-the-nation law delayed a year.
At the bill's signing ceremony in November 2019, Baker said the legislation was a response to rising nicotine habits among young people. He immediately banned sales of flavored e-cigarettes and established June 1 as the day menthol sales stop in Massachusetts.
“The bill goes a long way toward restricting access to the most addictive kinds of nicotine products,” Baker said at the time. “Longer term, the bill will keep kids and teenagers from getting their hands on vaping products, especially flavored products.”
But Massachusetts store owners say smokers will start crossing the line into New Hampshire to make purchases of the products banned in the Bay State, causing problems for the Massachusetts economy and the health of New Hampshire residents during the pandemic.
Jonathan Shaer, director of the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, said in a public statement that warnings from health experts and governors to eliminate out-of-state travel are likely to be ignored when the new law tobacco goes into effect.
“Massachusetts adults who prefer menthol cigarettes and mint/wintergreen smokeless tobacco will have little choice but to travel out of state or tap the black market to obtain these products,” Shaer said.
During discussions about reopening his state, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has made frequent references to “our neighbors to the south” dealing with substantially more coronavirus cases.
When asked about the impending Massachusetts ban on menthol, mint and wintergreen tobacco products, Sununu said in a statement to The Eagle-Tribune, “Whether you live in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, you’re healthier at home.”
He also said, “We expect Massachusetts residents will continue to abide by Gov. Baker’s stay-at-home order.”
Jonathan Ketchum, vice president of retail for Energy North, is not convinced that will be the case.
Based in South Lawrence, Energy North is affiliated with 43 gas stations and convenience stores across the region, including a Mobil on Broadway in Salem, New Hampshire.
“We’ve been advocating for pushing this ban back a year,” Ketchum said. “We recognize that cigarettes are a health risk, and we anticipated something like this happening, but this isn’t the time.”
Ketchum said the migration of smokers to New Hampshire became evident when the first Massachusetts restrictions went into place in the fall.
“With the vaping ban, we saw Massachusetts sales obviously go down to zero and New Hampshire stores were anywhere from a 150 to 200% increase in volume,” Ketchum said.
He attributes one-third of sales in the company’s Massachusetts stores to menthol cigarettes, and 75% of smokeless tobacco sales to products that are mint and wintergreen varieties.
“When you add it all up, we’re looking at 40% of our overall sales that are tobacco related,” he said. “We figure it’s going to cost our chain around $100,000 per week.”
While some of that business is recouped in the Energy North’s New Hampshire stores, it could mean laying off employees in Massachusetts, according to Ketchum.
“Hopefully it doesn’t mean closing storefronts,” he said. “It’s a double whammy. Sales are already depressed as it is.”