Denver City Council’s public comment session opened March 1 with a mother sharing about her high schooler’s addiction to e-cigarettes. The teen vaped for the first time with friends at school in September 2017. By December, she was stealing money from her brother and parents to buy pods and nicotine juice from friends. By April, the 15-year-old was using 2-3 pods a day—the equivalent of 40-60 cigarettes—in flavors like mango, crème brûlée, peach, and blue raspberry. She couldn’t go an hour without a puff. And the teen had no trouble hiding the habit from her parents until late April 2018, when a teacher from school called home to talk about his suspicions.
Two more parents, volunteers with Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe), spoke that night in favor of banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products in the City and County of Denver.
According to Flavors Hook Kids, 81% of kids who use tobacco started with a flavored product. And there are over 15,000 e-cigarette flavors available. The most recent Healthy Kids Colorado survey—drawn on data gathered during the 2019 school year—revealed that 26% of teens surveyed had vaped within the previous 30 days, and 46% had tried it at some point. Those results were similar to data from 2015 (when the survey began asking about vaping) and 2017, though in 2019 more teens who reported using e-cigarettes also reported trying to quit, and a higher number of teens now say they’re aware of the risks.
The Office of the U.S Surgeon General details a particular risk to teens: because adolescent brains are developing synapses more rapidly than adults, they can also become addicted more easily. And the nicotine itself changes the way synapses are formed, harming parts of the brain that control attention and learning.
A December 2020 poll of Denver voters conducted by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, and Kaiser Permanente found that 65% of respondents, across all districts and demographics, supported an ordinance to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products across Denver.
And now the effort has the backing of 24 principals in Denver middle schools and high schools—including leaders at North High School and Skinner and Lake middle schools. Dino Reyes Jr., Dean of Culture at Lake Middle School, has seen more vaping in the last 4-5 years of his 11 years with Denver Public Schools. Student vaping is considered a Type 1 infraction, treated with a call home. Like parents, school staff have a really hard time detecting when students vape.
Reyes worries about the long-term effects of getting hooked on nicotine, and he hopes the education and support to reduce teen vaping carries over into the entire range of substances he knows kids have access to these days. “We want to provide more education around any substance that can cause them harm.”
Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval wholeheartedly supports the proposed ordinance, “I plan to champion this issue and encourage the Mayor and my colleagues on the council to join me in doing the same. I want my constituents to know that the health and safety of our kids is my top priority. They say leadership is not about doing what’s popular, but doing what is right. Well in this case we can do both. We can implement an overwhelmingly supported policy and do right by our youth. I’d like to see this issue introduced to the Safety Committee before the end of the month. It is time to act. We cannot afford to wait any longer.”
Over 300 localities across the country, including five cities in Colorado (Aspen, Boulder, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and Snowmass Village), currently prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. Loveland will be voting in March on an ordinance that has been under consideration there since the fall.
Other recent measures aimed at decreasing teen tobacco use
In Colorado, the minimum age for purchasing any tobacco or nicotine product has increased from 18 to 21 years. In July 2020, Governor Polis signed a “Tobacco 21” bill into law, enhancing enforcement provisions and holding retailers accountable for unlawful sales. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is required to conduct two compliance checks per retailer each year. And in Denver, starting January 1, 2021, retailers are required to hold a Retail Tobacco Store License. They cannot sell tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a school, city-owned recreation centers or city-owned outdoor pools.
And then, in November 2020, 67% of Colorado voters approved Proposition EE, a ballot issue referred by the Colorado General Assembly. It increases taxes on cigarettes and begins taxing nicotine vape products. Starting January 1, 2021, nicotine vape products are taxed at 30%, increasing to 62% in 2027. In 2024, a portion of State revenue from this tax will fund programs to decrease youth tobacco use.
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