A push to outlaw the sale of flavored smoking products in Denver has drawn Big Tobacco, mom-and-pop vape shops, hookah lounges, health care providers and social justice advocates into a fight over public health, business rights and the freedom of choice.
The proposal under consideration by the Denver City Council is becoming one of the most intensely debated issues in City Hall in recent years, with public health advocates saying a ban would help end the teen vaping crisis while the opposition argues the city would be going too far in restricting access to products that adults have a right to use.
Adding to the complexity of the issue is a disagreement among the opposition over what kind of compromise — if any — can be reached.
As Phil Guerin, a Denver vape shop owner, said, “The vape people are throwing the hookah people under the bus and the hookah people are throwing the vape people under the bus.”
If passed by the City Council, the ordinance would outlaw the sale of any flavored smoking products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, e-cigarettes, vape pens and juices, and shisha, the tobacco used in hookahs and smoked in lounges across the city.
While Denver would become the seventh Colorado municipality to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, the ordinance would not prohibit people from possessing or using them.
The bill next will be discussed at 10 a.m. Wednesday during the council’s safety committee meeting in the Council Chambers at the Denver City and County Building.
The idea to outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco products started with Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who says she became alarmed about children’s access to vaping products last spring when her then-12-year-old daughter was part of a text chain in which another student was trying to purchase vaping supplies off TikTok to share with friends.
That led to a parent-child discussion about the dangers of smoking. Except Sawyer said her children didn’t believe vaping was harmful.
“I was really startled when they said, ‘It’s just cotton candy,’” Sawyer said, referring to vape flavor. “‘It’s not a big deal. It’s not unhealthy.’”
Sawyer decided to push for a sales ban in Denver. Sure, the illicit market would remain and people could drive to Aurora, Arvada, Lakewood or other neighboring cities to buy products, she said, but the best step to curb youth use would be minimizing their ability to get the products in their own neighborhoods.
“A flavor ban really is the single remaining piece beyond aggressive taxation, which I’m not interested in,” Sawyer said of what governments can do to curb teen vaping.
Councilwoman Debbie Ortega signed on as a co-sponsor and the two introduced the bill — setting off one of the hottest fights in City Hall in years.
“The tobacco industry has hired every lobbyist in town, which is extraordinary. It’s something we’ve never seen before,” Sawyer said. “Every lobbyist in town is knocking on every council member’s door to talk about this.”
Preventing kids from becoming users
Those who support the ban argue that it’s in the best interest of the public. They fire off statistics and health studies that illustrate that e-cigarette use, or vaping, by teens is on the rise and that it’s harmful to their health.
The U.S. Surgeon General has declared e-cigarettes an epidemic. On Sept. 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration issued a report that showed an estimated 2 million American middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2021, with eight in 10 of them preferring flavored e-cigarettes — with fruit, sweets and mint being the preferred flavors. More than one in four high school students and one in 12 middle school students use them daily.
E-cigarettes are loaded with highly addictive nicotine, a chemical that harms the developing adolescent brain, the CDC and FDA report said.
Already, Denver and Colorado ban tobacco sales to anyone younger than 21. In Denver, the Department of Public Health and Environment visits retailers to find out if they sell to underage consumers, although the pandemic put a pause on enforcement between the spring of 2020 and August of this year, said Natalee Salcedo, the city’s tobacco administrator. In a normal year, investigators inspect more than 2,000 retailers.
People on both sides of the debate have used the city’s enforcement data to prove their points or accuse the other side of lying. But the break during the pandemic makes the data incomplete, and the enforcement unit shifts its tactics so enforcement priorities are not the same every year.
For example, during one quarter in 2018, Denver’s public health department visited tobacco retailers of every type and found a 3% non-compliance rate. But during the next quarter, the enforcement unit focused on e-cigarette retailers and the non-compliance rate jumped to 19%, data shows. And when inspections restarted in August, investigators focused on unlicensed retailers and found 10 out of 77 businesses would sell to minors.
Jodi Radke, the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains regional director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said flavored products need to be outlawed because tobacco companies target children in marketing in hopes of addicting them at a young age. It’s an old strategy that tobacco companies have used for generations, she said.
“The goal of this policy is to prevent these kids from becoming the lifelong adult users who regret making the decision to use when they were 13, 14 or 15,” Radke said.
Carmen Martin, a Denver mother to 12- and 14-year-old daughters, said one daughter recently saw someone buying mango-flavored e-cigarettes in a drug store and told her mother, “Who wouldn’t want to smoke mango? That sounds delicious.”
That comment led to a family talk.
Martin said she started smoking at 12 and knows how easy it is to become hooked. She smoked for 15 years, quitting before she had children, and she doesn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps because the health risks are too great.
“We know the flavors are there to hook kids. It’s a ‘no duh,’” Martin said. “I don’t feel like it’s something we need data around when there’s chocolate and cotton candy and strawberry. That’s intentional. The tobacco industry knows if they can hook a young person, that’s a consumer for life and they’ll use until they die.”
Valuable tool for quitting smoking
On the other side, those who sell e-cigarettes and the assorted flavors argue they’re a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes because they don’t include the tar and other chemicals that cause lung cancer and other diseases.
Adults have a right to choose what to smoke, said Joe Miklosi, the chief executive officer of Bridge Consulting, who is working for Rocky Mountain Smoke-Free Alliance, a coalition of 125 vaping stores in Colorado, including 21 in Denver.
“People are desperate to quit smoking, and then they can use vaping and quit in a weekend,” Miklosi said. “The health organizations need to honor that. You need to meet people where they are. These mom-and-pop businesses poured their life savings into these businesses because they believe in helping people.”
Monica Vondruska, who owns Cignot Colorado at 1412 W. 38th Ave. in northwest Denver, said a ban would drive her out of business because her store’s entire focus is vaping supplies.
She doesn’t sell Juul or other e-cigarette brands owned by large tobacco corporations. And she offers various products with different levels of nicotine so smokers can ween themselves from their addictions over time. She believes vape pens and juices are legitimate alternatives to cigarettes because her husband used them to kick the habit.
“Adults deserve the ability to make that choice,” Vondruska said. “You’re standing in the way of people converting to a less harmful product. Period.”
Guerin, who owns Myxed Up Creations at 5800 E. Colfax Ave., called the ban a witch hunt, saying he agreed that teens should not use e-cigarettes or any other form of tobacco. But he said stores such as his keep the flavored products out of young hands with self-imposed rules and good business practices.
“Right now, it’s in my hands. I am a responsible business person,” Guerin said. “I still live in the same zip code I was born in. I know everyone. I have an 11-year-old daughter. My daughter goes to the same school I went to. I don’t condone my daughter using vape.”
In this fight, though, the businesses that oppose the ban are not all aligned in their fight to stop it.
Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Convenience Store Association, said the ban is too wide because it includes flavored cigars and cigarettes, neither of which has been declared a youth health crisis. If the City Council wants to end teen vaping, then ban flavored vaping products, he said.
The broad flavored tobacco ban is being pushed by advocacy groups that want to outlaw all smoking, he said.
“The health people are using a teen vaping crisis to knock off another couple of items that are on their wish list,” Bailey said. “It doesn’t seem to be a very balanced policy.”
The owners of hookah lounges are lobbying the City Council to carve out an exemption for their businesses. They maintain their lounges only allow people 21 and older in the doors and no teen is going to try to sneak a bulky water pipe with all of its hoses into their bedrooms, said Hrant Vartzbedian, executive director of the National Hookah Community Association.
“We feel vape and namely Big Tobacco has abused that relationship and has been trying to sell to kids,” he said. “We believe hookah is collateral damage to vape’s problems.”
Vartzbedian also said he has explained to council members that hookah lounges are an important part of immigrant cultures, particularly for people from the Middle East. It’s a familiar place for people to socialize and relax.
“It’s their scene. You take this from them, what are they going to do?” he said.
Targeting people of color
Hookah isn’t the sole cultural argument introduced into the debate.
The sales ban would include menthol cigarettes, which are smoked primarily by Black people.
Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb recently penned an opinion piece for The Denver Post to argue against the ban because, he wrote, it targets people of color. “We are giving police a reason to stop every person smoking a cigarette to check if it’s menthol,” he wrote.
Webb acknowledged in an interview that he is working as a lobbyist on the issue for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
“It’s bad for Denver,” Webb said of the council’s proposal. “Singling out any product is not good, whether it’s to ban them or tax them.”
But Dr. Terri Richardson, a retired Denver doctor, said the fact that tobacco companies spent years marketing menthols to Black people is exactly why she supports the sales prohibition. It’s a public health issue.
The argument that a ban will lead Denver police to stop Black people for smoking is a scare tactic, Richardson said. The ordinance would not create any sort of violation for smoking or possessing flavored tobacco products, and police would not have the right to stop people for it.
“A lot of that is being driven by Big Tobacco,” Richardson said. “They come into every state in the nation and pay people to say, ‘Hey, this is going to cause our Black people to be harmed.’ This is about the people selling the menthol cigarettes and not about the people smoking menthol.”
The fight brewing in Denver is because the proposed ordinance pits money against health, she said.
“The reason we are fighting so hard is this is all about profit over people, profit over public health.”
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