On the heels of a defeat to ban flavored smoking and vaping products in Denver, state lawmakers are considering a flavor ban that could be enacted across Colorado.
Several cities have passed similar bans, but an attempt to do so in Denver failed after Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed the City Council vote and members failed to overturn his veto. He and other councilors cited a need to have statewide regulations, saying a ban in Denver wouldn’t achieve the goal of keeping these products out of the hands of teens when surrounding municipalities didn’t have the same regulations.
Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat and emergency room nurse, has been working on a bill that would address what the U.S. Surgeon General declared an epidemic of youth vaping in 2018 and focus on what Mullica called the “gateway” of that addiction to vaping — flavored products. In 2018, Colorado youth were vaping nicotine at twice the national average.
“We know that it’s the most effective way to try to make sure kids aren’t addicted to tobacco products, to nicotine products,” Mullica said. “And so I think it’s an important thing that we need to be looking at, especially from a public health standpoint.”
The legal age to buy smoking or vaping products is 21.
The bill as it stands now — it has not yet been filed and is still a work in progress — calls for a ban of all flavored vaping and cigarette products, only allowing for the traditional tobacco flavor. Lawmakers passed bills in previous sessions to reduce teen access to tobacco and nicotine products, but a bill to ban flavors in 2020 was shelved.
Research released this year by the government’s annual National Youth Tobacco survey showed that the number of teens using e-cigarettes dropped this year, but an estimated 2 million teens and adolescents vape. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that most of the products were exchanged between friends and the teens preferred flavored e-cigarettes.
But a statewide ban has been met with resistance, particularly from local vape shop owners, who say they are not the main culprits for these types of products getting in the hands of teens and that such a ban could ultimately put them out of business.
Monica Vondruska, who owns two vape shops in Denver and Arvada, has been a vocal opponent against such bans and expects to campaign against the statewide ban as well. She believes if a flavor ban were to go into effect, she would have to close her shops’ doors in 30 days because more than 90% of her inventory is flavored vapor.
Vondruska also argues that flavor bans will instead make it easier for the black market to sell products to minors.
“Making things that are illegal for a certain age group more illegal for everyone doesn’t really help that situation,” she said. “It just takes less harmful products away from adults that need them.”
House GOP Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland shared similar sentiments, saying prohibition didn’t work in the ’20s and it won’t work now. And though he understands there’s a public health concern for teens, he doesn’t think this is the solution.
“In a way, you’re interrupting the normal market where you could make changes that make it more difficult (for teens to buy products),” he said.
The target audience for vape shops is smokers, so they are trying to provide them a less harmful alternative in vaping, and the flavors help with that, Vondruska asserted.
A memo from lobbyists who represent 125 independent vape shops in Colorado stated that the shop owners are opposed to these kinds of bans because they believe they will increase youth cigarette use, increase online vaping sales and destroy local vape shops’ businesses. It also noted that local shops sell different products than the vaping giant JUUL.
Instead, the owners advocate for letting federal and state regulations play out such as the federal ban on flavors in closed vaping devices and the increase in age to 21 to purchase tobacco products. The memo called for other solutions to the problem of youth vaping like enforcing a more robust licensing plan across municipalities and stiffening penalties for stores that sell to minors. It cited 2019 data showing a majority of youth reported that factors other than flavors led to them trying e-cigarettes.
But proponents of the bill argue that it’s the flavors that are leading to continued use and lifelong addictions and that data shows that the flavors also contribute to initiating that use.
“When we look at Colorado data, we know it’s not the adults who are the end-users,” Jodi Radke, director of the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains Region with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said. “Very few adults actually use vaping products and a very small percentage use smokeless and over 13% smoke cigarettes. So our numbers don’t reflect high-use rates amongst adults and epidemic levels amongst our kids.”
Radke points to data that shows that in 2017, about 5.3% of adults used e-cigarettes and in 2018, 3.5% of adults used smokeless tobacco. She said many of the flavored products entered the market illegally without FDA approval and then government inaction allowed them to get in the hands of kids. Her organization is part of multiple lawsuits against the FDA.
Radke thinks some of the regulatory proposals for systems like increased fines and penalties are ineffective based on where kids are saying they get access to the products.
Although Democrats will have a harder time getting Republicans on board with a flavor ban, it’s an easy sell for GOP Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson who plans to sign onto the bill. He said this is the year to pass this piece of legislation as people have become more cognizant of health concerns, particularly as they relate to COVID.
“It’s good for kids and it’s good for lowering the cost of health care and keeping people healthier and having more productive lives and less disease, less sickness,” Priola said. “And so I think it’s a good policy. It doesn’t ban cigarettes. It doesn’t create a black market for cigarettes. It just makes it so that if you really, really love cigarettes, they’re still available. It’s just they’re not going to be in flavors that are almost like candy that kids can get really used to enjoying.”
Lawmakers will also have to convince Democratic Gov. Jared Polis that a flavor ban is a good idea. In a statement, spokesperson Victoria Graham said, “The governor has signed legislation providing local governments authority to regulate tobacco products and as a general philosophy prefers local control because our local governments are closest to the people they represent.”
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