This past spring, Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer got a call from the principal at her child’s school, who said that her sixth-grader was on a text chain with a group of students, “one of whom was trying to purchase flavored vape products off TikTok and resell it to their friends,” she recalls.
Sawyer started looking into the flavored products. “It doesn’t smell bad in the same way that tobacco does,” says Sawyer. “In their minds, it seems better, healthier. If we can stop our kids from smoking to begin with, then hopefully they won’t turn into adult smokers.”
Now, Sawyer and at-large council rep Debbie Ortega are pushing an ordinance that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in Denver, whether designed to be consumed by vaping, chewing or smoking. Menthol cigarettes would also get the ax, Sawyer notes, as would flavored hookah tobacco.
The proposal comes after years of advocacy against flavored tobacco products by such organizations as the American Heart Association, Kaiser Permanente and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“Whether it’s with flavored e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars, the tobacco industry has used flavor to hook young people for decades to this deadly addiction,” Ray Estacio, president of the Denver chapter of the American Heart Association, said during a June public comment session before a Denver City Council meeting.
Advocates of a ban have been pushing for the city to take action during public comment sessions through the year, and some Denver health officials agree that it’s time.
“The biggest area of concern for us is that one in five kids uses vape products regularly,” says Tristan Sanders, public-health manager at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, citing data from a Healthy Kids Colorado survey. And eight in ten kids who vape use flavored products, according to the Food and Drug Administration. “What these kids are interested in, and why they’re using these products, kind of centers around them being flavored and attractive to kids,” adds Sanders, who’s led much of the city’s work on a possible flavored-tobacco ban.
In January 2020, Mayor Michael Hancock came out in favor of cracking down on flavored vaping products. Sanders and other health department officials looked into what a ban might look like, but ultimately the Hancock administration did not push a proposal, saying that a policy fix should be handled at a statewide level. Still, the administration is voicing support for Sawyer and Ortega’s proposal.
“Denver Public Health and Environment absolutely supports the concept of a flavor ban,” DDPHE’s Will Fenton said during an August 10 town hall hosted by Sawyer and Ortega regarding a possible ordinance banning flavored tobacco.
On the federal level, a partial crackdown on flavored vaping products spearheaded by the Trump administration took effect last year. Stores can no longer sell flavored pods, the disposable cartridges that vapers place into electronic vaping devices; the only pods that stores can still stock are menthol- and tobacco-flavored ones. But the federal crackdown did not affect flavored vape juices that are in larger containers and that vapers pour into pods or the devices themselves.
The Denver proposal would. The two councilmembers plan to engage with owners of vape shops, convenience stores and gas stations in September, then introduce a proposed ordinance at a committee meeting in October.
If Denver City Council approves a flavored-tobacco ban, the city will join a growing list of Colorado municipalities that have done so. Glenwood Springs, Boulder, Aspen and many other jurisdictions have already banned the sale of flavored vaping products. In early August, Edgewater City Council passed a flavored-tobacco sales ban, becoming the first metro municipality to adopt such an ordinance.
Those bans have faced some opposition, and the main trade industry group representing vape shops in Colorado is hopeful that Denver City Council won’t pass an ordinance that fully bans flavored vaping products.
“There’s much smarter policy. I think flavor bans are very regressive. They don’t take into account that vaping is a harm-reduction product for tobacco users,” says Amanda Wheeler, president of the Rocky Mountain Smoke Free Alliance.
“If your only goal is to put forth a blanket ban and you do nothing when it comes to cessation and prevention, I would just end by saying I think that’s lazy policy, and we saw that that doesn’t work when it comes to the last fifty years of the drug war,” said Art Way, a consultant for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, during a second town hall on the topic.
Denver is already working to crack down on youth tobacco and nicotine use. In September 2019, Denver City Council voted to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 and require all businesses that sell tobacco products to be licensed. Just a few months later, Congress voted to raise the minimum tobacco purchasing age to 21 nationwide.
The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment sends inspectors to outlets selling tobacco products four times a year, and has found that approximately one in five does not comply with the age restrictions.