Council Committee Debates Flavored Tobacco Ban

Denver City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness committee met October 27th to decide whether to move a proposed citywide ban on flavored tobacco product sales to a vote of the full Council. Introduced Oct 6th, the bill will be back on the committee’s calendar for even further deliberation—and straw polling on amendments on November 17th. Chair Paul Kashmann encourages interested members of the public to contact committee members or their district’s City Council member.

The room filled to near capacity October 27th despite public comment having taken place three weeks earlier. Under discussion at the front of the room: amendments and alternatives that, according to co-sponsor Amanda Sawyer, District 5, were circulating by email late into the evening before.

Proposed amendments sought to exempt 1) hookah lounges, put forth by District 7’s Jolon Clark, 2) cigars and premium tobacco products, by District 6’s Paul Kashmann, and 3) menthol products, by District 2’s Kevin Flynn. Councilmember Kendra Black, District 4, proposed two alternatives to the bill as a whole: one requiring enhanced ID verification at existing stores and another that would restrict flavored tobacco sales to age-restricted stores (as is the case with marijuana).

Heated debate in Denver over the proposed end to flavored tobacco sales mirrors wrangling taking place across the country.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also actively intervened in recent years, issuing rules, regulations and guidance on an increasingly broad array of tobacco products.

Proponents of flavor bans cite public health concerns connected to the over 2 million U.S. middle and high school students using e-cigarettes. They point to evidence that teens first become hooked on nicotine through flavored products like JUUL and Puff Bar. They also point to the tobacco industry’s long history of demographically targeted marketing, including the use of candy-flavored products to “hook” teens  as well as menthol product marketing pointed at African Americans.

Opponents to flavor bans are concerned these measures reach too far into the realm of adult choice. They argue that products like cigars, nicotine pouches, bulkier vape tanks, and hookah pipes—which are used less frequently by teens than e-cigarettes—would be restricted unnecessarily. Some are concerned that products used to quit smoking will be pushed off the market. And they point to the beginnings of research asking if teens will turn to traditional cigarettes when flavored products are no longer available.

Referencing an April 29, 2021, FDA announcement that the agency “is working toward issuing proposed product standards within the next year to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors (including menthol) in cigars, Northwest Denver City Councilwoman Amanda P. Sandoval says, “If anything, the FDA’s decision creates an even greater obligation for states and cities to take action, because it shows there is overwhelming scientific evidence to support eliminating menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products.”

Sandoval continues, “As Colorado’s most populous city, Denver has a responsibility to show leadership by prioritizing the health of our community over tobacco industry profits. As a mother of two teenagers this issue is near and dear to my heart and I look to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in the city and county of Denver. This is a necessary step toward improving the lives of Brown and Black residents and preventing youth tobacco addiction.”

As presented by Councilmember Sawyer, Bill 21-1182 seeks to end the sale of flavored tobacco products in Denver as a means to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic. The most recent Healthy Kids Colorado Survey reported that nearly 26% of the state’s high schoolers had smoked an e-cigarette in the prior 30 days. According to Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 81% of youth who have used tobacco started with a flavored product, whether e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes, cigars or hookah.

Committee deliberation touched on the limitations of prohibition (Black), the impact that reducing availability and appeal can have on reducing teen usage (Kniech) and a range of perspectives on banning menthol coming from the African American community (Flynn).

Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents the G.E.S. community, does not serve on the committee debating the ban, though it may advance to the full council.

Councilmembers were interested in data showing how teens are gaining access to tobacco products in the first place when the minimum age to purchase them is 21. The 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey revealed that 20% of youth who obtained tobacco products were given them by someone over 21. 23% enlisted someone over 21 to purchase products on their behalf.

As it currently stands, the bill contains a single exemption for FDA approved harm reduction tools. Sawyer indicated she had not been persuaded by proposed amendments for additional exemptions or the two bill alternatives suggested by Black.

On August 3, 2021 Edgewater City Council voted to end the sale of flavored tobacco products within its jurisdiction, joining Aspen, Boulder, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and Snowmass Village with similar measures.

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