The proposed ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products in Denver was advanced by the city council safety committee Wednesday, with added exemptions for flavored hookah and premium cigar and pipe tobacco.
Wednesday’s unanimous vote comes after the committee delayed votes on the ban since early October. The ban will now be sent to the full council in the coming weeks for two final votes before it can be implemented.
As is, the ban would apply to flavored tobacco products sold in all establishments in Denver, with additional exemptions for harm-reduction tools. That means flavored menthol cigarettes, chewing tobacco and vaping products could not be sold — the last of which is the main target of the ban aimed at reducing youth tobacco use.
“The youth smoking and vaping epidemic is what we are trying to solve,” said Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who co-sponsored the ban. “Kids are not paying a significant amount of money for fancy pipe cigars and pipe tobacco from a specialty shop. And they’re not whipping hookahs out of their backpack at high school. We felt comfortable making these exemptions.”
The exemptions for flavored hookah and premium cigar and pipe tobacco were approved by the council Wednesday following weeks of pushback from community members, especially from owners of hookah lounges who said hookah cannot be unflavored.
Several council members criticized the exemption for premium cigars, calling it an equity and classism issue. Under the exemption, a premium cigar is defined as a cigar that is handmade, wrapped from a whole tobacco leaf, not mass produced by mechanization and has no filter, tip or non-tobacco mouthpiece.
“I am bothered by the fact that a well-to-do elite white person can still go into the Brown Palace Churchill Bar and buy a $12 or $15 cigar, but can’t go down to the corner store and get a pack of Newport,” Councilman Kevin Flynn said.
“To make this an elitist argument I think is inappropriate and offensive,” Councilman Paul Kashmann, who sponsored the exemption, said in response. “It is not white people in lounges smoking cigars. … You can get premium cigars that would meet the definition in the $2 to $3 range.”
Councilwoman Robin Kniech and Council President Stacie Gilmore also raised issue with the premium cigar exemption, with Kniech saying she intends to introduce an amendment to remove the exemption when the ban is voted on by the full council.
Flynn said he also intends to introduce amendments that would add exemptions for menthol products and all flavored tobacco products sold within age-restricted stores that only allow customers age 21 and older, like liquor and marijuana stores.
Even with the exemptions, some council members questioned whether the ban was fair to adult smokers in the city, as well as whether it would achieve the goal of preventing youth tobacco use.
“I don’t believe that this prohibition, and it is at least a partial prohibition, would actually achieve the goal,” Flynn said. “To (ban flavored tobacco) in Denver when there are dozens of places in an easy walking distance, let alone a short drive, where someone will still be able to get this.”
“I believe that this bill is about public health at large,” Kniech said in response. “Some folks will be very motivated. … They will drive to another community. Others have mixed feelings about their addiction and its health impacts and the additional costs of time, money, travel to get that product will be a deterrent.”
In 2020, roughly 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students used e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of tobacco users between 12 and 17 years old, 81 percent said they started by using flavored products and 79 percent said they use a product because it comes in flavors they like, according to a study by the FDA and National Institutes of Health.
If passed by the full City Council, the flavored tobacco ban would go into effect July 1, 2022.
Wednesday’s approved amendments to the ban also included a requirement that the city health department report to the council annually on whether the ban has been effective.