City Council, Mayor Spar over Flavored Tobacco Sales

Update: Supporters on council failed to override Mayor Hancock’s veto, so the legislation will not go into effect.

Editor’s Note: this edition of The Denver North Star went to press on 12/12/21, the day before supporters on City Council were attempting to override Mayor Hancock’s veto. Unfortunately, that means we were unable to report on the final outcome in this print edition, but we felt the story was important enough to still include in order to share perspectives from elected officials who represent NW Denver. The online edition will be updated with the final result.

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On December 6, Denver City Council voted 8 to 3 to approve a measure banning the sale of flavored tobacco products in the city. Four days later Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed it. Supporters immediately announced an effort to overturn the veto.

The bill sought to curtail the onset of teen nicotine addiction by limiting access to the products that are most appealing and aggressively marketed to kids.

If enacted, beginning July 1, 2023, the sale of flavored products—including flavored chewing tobacco, menthol cigarettes, and vaping juices would be banned.

If enacted, beginning July 1, 2023, the sale of flavored products—including flavored chewing tobacco, menthol cigarettes, and vaping juices would be banned. While the bill’s language is clear there are no criminal violations, a retailer who consistently violates the ordinance would risk losing their right to sell other tobacco products.

The proposed law did not impact the use or possession of flavored tobacco, which led to speculation by Mayor Hancock and some members of Council that teens—and the adults who help them obtain 21+ products—would simply purchase flavored products in nearby cities.

The move was Hancock’s second veto since taking over as mayor of Denver in 2011. The first veto came in early 2020 when he refused to sign a bill that would have ended a Denver pit bull ownership ban enacted in 1989. Voters ultimately replaced the ban with a special pit bull permitting program when they approved Ballot Measure 2J
that November.

Mayor Hancock’s Dec. 10 letter to City Council detailed flaws he found with the proposed ban on flavored tobacco, emphasizing first the public health limitations of enacting such a measure when most neighboring cities have nothing similar in place. He called on his staff to work with nearby municipalities and state lawmakers on a collaborative solution that would provide greater breadth of coverage in keeping tobacco products out of the hands of teens.

Mayor Hancock also pointed to the measure’s potentially severe economic consequences on small and minority-owned businesses. He went on to say that, “providing an exemption for natural cigars and hookah lounges puts us in a position of not only picking winners and losers in this ban, but also raises equity concerns that certain businesses and residents should not face the burdens this ban will place on others.”

On December 7, shortly after Council passed the measure, North Denver Councilmember Amanda P. Sandoval said, “I’m thankful the flavor ban passed, it is a small piece of the puzzle to help address youth vaping and overall nicotine addiction because ultimately that was what was at the heart of the policy, addressing nicotine addiction. I’d like to thank everyone who reached out to my office over the last year to offer your opinion and help me understand the importance of the issue in our neighborhood.”

Councilmember Robin Kniech, who voted in favor of the bill, agreed with critics that the measure is not perfect. She believes, though, that it will reduce both teen access to nicotine and its attractiveness, leading to longer-term public health benefits. Councilmember Jamie Torres also cited public health when casting her vote in favor of the bill. She acknowledged the significant presence of small business owners at the meeting. Referencing the last two years and COVID-19, she pointed to the particular difficulty that comes with significant public health discussions. In the end, she voted for the health of her district’s youth, “Our kids aren’t property owners. They’re not business owners, but they are the ones who are also telling us we need to make this less accessible to them.”

Councilmember Debbie Ortega, the bill’s co-sponsor, hoped that challenges presented by purchasers simply leaving
Denver to shop elsewhere would be resolved by nearby municipalities following suit with similar measures.

Of several attempts to limit the bill’s scope while it worked its way through the process, three had been successful.

On November 29, Council approved an amendment delaying the effective date to one year beyond what was originally proposed. Councilmember Kashmann proposed this additional time in order to give retailers whose business consists largely of flavored tobacco products an opportunity to adjust their business or find other means
of income.

The two other successful amendments created exemptions for natural cigars (handmade and wrapped in whole tobacco leaf) and pipe tobacco, as well as hookah tobaccos, when sold by retailers for whom these products are their primary business, and provided they prohibit entry to anyone under 21 years old.

Just prior to the December 6 vote, Council President Stacie Gilmore admitted to deeply mixed feelings on the measure. Ultimately voting against it, Gilmore expressed concern around why pipe tobacco and cigars were exempt and not menthol and questions about whether the ban will truly have the intended public health benefit for youth.

The measure drew heated debate and passionate public testimony from a wide range of Denverites. A momentary lightness emerged from the heavy issue when several opponents showed up to one hearing wearing royal blue “Vaping Saves Adult Lives” t-shirts, seemingly in response to the supporters’ red “Flavors Hook Kids” shirts.

Organized support was spearheaded by Flavors Hook Kids, which pulled together over 100 local health and advocacy organizations. Among the most visible were the Colorado Black Health Collaborative, The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, Tepeyac Community Health Center, Children’s Hospital Colorado, and One Colorado. The DPS Board of Education also weighed in with its support.

Organized opposition to the ban came from the owners of small vape shops across Denver, menthol smokers, and from the National Hookah Community Association.

In the end, most Council members agreed the bill came up short. For opponents, it didn’t adequately preserve adult freedoms or provide for the interests of small business owners who responsibly sell flavored products only to those over 21. For supporters, questions lingered about how teens are marketed to and how existing 21+ laws are enforced. They point to the 2019 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey that revealed 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.

Mayor Hancock committed to stepping up the city’s efforts to keep tobacco out of the hands of youth, “We will review our current regulations and pursue stronger tools such as additional licensing requirements, expanded fine schedules that will act as a meaningful deterrent to bad actors, and increased enforcement of regulations already in place to ensure we are precisely, meaningfully and equitably addressing the problem of youth access to tobacco.”


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