"The biggest area of concern for us is that one in five kids use 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 according to the Food and Drug Administration, eight in ten kids who vape use flavored products. "What these kids are interested in, and why they're using these products, kind of centers around them being flavored and attractive to kids," he adds.
Denver public-health officials are discussing the idea of a comprehensive flavored-tobacco restriction with city leadership, and have considered adding exemptions as a proposal makes its way through the political process.
"It wouldn’t necessarily be our recommendation, but we’ll do what we need to do," Sanders says. "I think we’ll know directionally where we’re headed in the next couple of months." A comprehensive restriction would also include flavored tobacco products that fall under the snuff, dipping tobacco and chewing tobacco categories.
"Really, it’s a youth access reduction policy," explains Lynnette Namba, a community-health specialist at Kaiser Permanente, one of the entities pushing for a flavored-tobacco ban in Denver.
"It's not a coincidence that a black person might smoke menthols," says Naomi Amaha of the American Heart Association. "It’s a decades-long result of marketing and targeting," she adds, noting that the proposed city policy seeks to help "end that disproportionate impact."
In late 2019, Denver City Council approved a measure to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 and require licensing for tobacco retail shops. Not long after that, Mayor Michael Hancock's office and the DDPHE began exploring the idea of further regulating tobacco products, including enacting an outright ban on flavored vaping products and potentially prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes. Other cities, such as Boulder, have already enacted flavored tobacco bans.
In past sessions of the Colorado Legislature, lawmakers have floated the idea of a statewide flavored vaping ban, although no bills have been proposed.
At the local level, the COVID-19 pandemic and the city's transition into emergency-response mode pushed back any possible flavor-ban ordinance. In October, Keating Research conducted a survey on behalf of the American Heart Association, Kaiser Permanente and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to gauge Denver residents' stance on a flavored tobacco ban. The final survey results showed that 65 percent of respondents supported "an ordinance to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products in the city of Denver, which includes fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine vaping products, menthol-flavored cigarettes and flavored cigars."
Proponents of the flavor ban have recently lobbied city officials, but opponents have also been busy, asking for carve-outs in any final ordinance.
"For vape shops, over 90 percent of what we sell are flavored products, which is by and large what adults prefer. Adults don’t prefer tobacco flavor that tastes like a cigarette," says Amanda Wheeler, president of the Rocky Mountain Smoke Free Alliance and an owner of two vape shops in Colorado Springs.
As for a possible ban of menthol cigarettes, says lobbyist Denice Edwards, "I have a real problem with telling people of color what they can and can’t do when it’s legal."
In March, Edwards was hired by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which owns some of the most popular menthol cigarette brands, such as Newport and Camel. "Even before that, I was advocating against that issue at the state level. I’m not an advocate of people smoking. I’m an advocate of people’s choice. That’s my biggest point," she says.
Counters Councilwoman Kendra Black: “I’m in support. The flavors appeal to kids.”
Councilman Kevin Flynn hasn't taken a position on the proposal, though. His initial thought? "If we do our jobs effectively and prevent sales to minors," he says, "it's less of an issue, particularly when it comes to the question of including mentholated cigarettes, which adults have been freely purchasing for many decades. I will be reading all of the information we're being provided and meeting with anyone who wants to weigh in."
But the proposal's proponents don't plan on ceding any ground. "I believe there’s pretty good support from council," says Namba. "We have a huge coalition of supporters from the community."