Denver Government

Hookah, Premium Cigars Exempted From Proposed Denver Flavored Tobacco Ban

Hookah will live to see another day in Denver.
Hookah will live to see another day in Denver. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
While a Denver City Council committee will soon vote on a proposed flavored tobacco and vaping products ban, hookah lounges and premium cigars are no longer on the chopping block.

"Councilwoman Ortega and I feel that we have done significant amounts of engagement with community, with other councilmembers. We have compromised where we feel comfortable compromising. This bill is ready to go," says Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who is co-sponsoring the flavor ban ordinance with Councilwoman Debbie Ortega. The Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness City Council committee will vote on the proposal on November 17; if it passes, it will move on to the full council.

When Sawyer and Ortega first unveiled the proposed ordinance back in August, all flavored tobacco and vaping products were slated to get the ax.

"It's very clear that reducing access reduces usage," says Sawyer, whose goal is to reduce youth use of nicotine products.

A 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that approximately one of every five high school students, or 19.6 percent, reported that they'd used electronic cigarettes in the past thirty days. Flavors are a big draw for kids who take up vaping, according to proponents of the ban. On the other hand, opponents of such bans say that flavored-vaping products help adult smokers quit.

In the months since the measure was proposed, lobbyists and industry insiders representing a range of interests — including hookah lounges, menthol cigarette makers and vape shops — have been fighting to get exemptions in the final proposal. They packed two committee meetings last month, at which councilmembers debated the proposal and twice postponed a final vote on the measure.

In the meantime, councilmembers have proposed several amendments to the proposal. Councilman Kevin Flynn wants to exempt menthol cigarettes, while Councilwoman Kendra Black wants to substitute the current proposal with an entirely new ordinance that would ramp up 21-plus age restrictions instead of banning flavored products.

But Sawyer and Ortega have not agreed to those proposals. "If either of those were to get enough support, it would erode the value and the purpose of the bill so significantly that it wouldn't be worthwhile at this point," Sawyer says.

But they have agreed to an exemption to the flavor ban for premium cigars, an amendment proposed by Councilman Paul Kashmann. "What we're seeing is that kids are not smoking premium cigars for a bunch of money from Cuba, so recognizing that the purpose of the bill is to keep these products out of the hands of kids, that seems like a reasonable amendment, provided that they are checking IDs every time and remaining compliant," says Sawyer.

Councilman Jolon Clark brought forward another amendment that Sawyer and Ortega also have accepted, which would exempt hookah products, all of which are flavored.

"This is not what kids are whipping out of their backpack in class to smoke. I think that this allows for a lane for those good actors and folks for whom this is a part of their cultural experience, while keeping our kids safe," explains Clark.

Clark has also been pushing a measure that would regulate the hours of operation for hookah lounges so that they must close at midnight; currently, they can operate at all hours. While hookah industry stakeholders generally support the measure, they would prefer that the hours of operation be kicked to 2 a.m. instead of midnight.

This proposal, which council will vote on for a final time on November 15, will help solve an issue "that has plagued neighborhoods through bad operators for many, many years," according to Clark, who says that his own district has dealt with a problem hookah lounge just off South Broadway.

No matter how the flavor ban vote goes, hookah lounges and premium cigar retailers will now be able to stay in business. But if the ordinance is approved, most vape shops will go up in smoke.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.