Denver Government

Up In Smoke: Winners and Losers of Proposed Flavored Tobacco Ban in Denver

Vape shops in Denver would likely become extinct if a flavor ban were to take effect.
Vape shops in Denver would likely become extinct if a flavor ban were to take effect. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Denver City Council will vote on a proposed citywide ban of flavored tobacco and vaping products on December 6. With so much at stake for retailers, consumers and big tobacco, the proposal has been the subject of intense debate at council committee meetings over the last few months, and the wording of the ordinance has gone through some significant changes.

If the proposal passes and Denver joins other local municipalities like Boulder and Edgewater in banning these products, there will be some clear winners and losers. And they are:

WINNERS Public-health advocates

For years, organizations like the American Heart Association, Kaiser Permanente and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have been lobbying Denver City Council to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products, with the goal of reducing vaping among local youth, who often cite the flavors as an attractive element of vaping.

"This ordinance gives our youth [the chance] to be tobacco-free and healthy. All flavors should be banned," Terri Richardson, an internal medicine doctor and vice chair of the Colorado Black Health Collaborative, said at the November 29 council meeting. If the ban is approved, these public-health advocates will have won a big victory: The ordinance is sweeping, with carve-outs only for hookah and pipe tobacco and premium cigars. Every other flavored tobacco product — whether consumed by smoking, vaping or chewing — will be prohibited in Denver.

Hookah lounges and premium tobacco shops

Thanks to amendments by councilmembers Jolon Clark and Paul Kashmann, the ban will not include premium cigars or hookah and pipe tobacco. This exemption will allow high-end tobacco shops to continue offering flavored wares; hookah lounges, which rely on flavored tobacco products, will also be allowed to stay open.

A byproduct of the hookah exemption: Clark sponsored his own bill aimed at problem hookah lounges, which mandates that they must close by midnight. Previously, they'd been allowed to remain open at all hours (they cannot have liquor licenses). Council approved Clark's proposal in mid-November, and although the lounges had suggested they be allowed to remain open until 2 a.m., like bars, they were happy to escape the flavored tobacco ban.

"We are content with the results and the outcome. The balance between what a community seeks and keeping businesses open and thriving while protecting youth health is a fine line. I'm glad we were able to bring all of those together. We are proud to have had the chance to work together with council and achieve that," says Hrant Vartzbedian, executive director of the National Hookah Community Association, which has over ten members in Denver. "I'm pretty sure the radicals are angry, but aren't they all the time?"

Amanda Sawyer and Debbie Ortega

Although the final proposal has been slightly watered down, if council approves the ordinance on December 6, it will still mark a major policy victory for co-sponsors Amanda Sawyer and Debbie Ortega.

Sawyer started researching a potential ban after discovering her middle-school child on a text chain with a group of students, one of whom was trying to purchase flavored vape products off TikTok and resell them to the other kids. And Ortega, who served on Denver City Council from 1987 to 2003 before being elected to an at-large slot in 2011, had worked on banning the free distribution of tobacco products on the 16th Street Mall and also helped ban tobacco advertising at the National Western Stock Show.

The two will take their victory, though they're concerned about one amendment added on November 29, which would kick the ordinance's implementation date from July 2022 to July 2023. "I’m curious how many kids are going to get addicted to cigarettes and vaping in that extra year," Sawyer said at the meeting.

LOSERS

Menthol smokers

Menthol cigarettes will be banned under this ordinance. At the November 29 meeting, Councilman Kevin Flynn proposed an amendment to exempt them, too, with the ensuing discussion largely revolving around whether menthol cigarettes are a part of Black culture. And if that's the case, is it because of industry targeting, or simple preference?

"I am in support of this amendment tonight because again, if we are exempting natural cigars, if we are exempting hookah, I want to make sure that we’re being equitable and that we’re not creating a system that has really deep, unintended consequences," council president Stacie Gilmore said in support of the amendment. But it was rejected by the full council.

If the ban passes, fans of menthol cigarettes will now have to go outside of Denver to buy them.

Vapers

If the ban passes, vapers will also have to travel outside of Denver to purchase flavored vaping products, or get them online. Currently, vapers can pop into vape specialty shops and peruse products as though they're shopping in a pot dispensary or in a liquor store, chatting with staffers about their preferences.

While some vapers simply enjoy vaping products because they like the nicotine buzz and the flavors, others have used flavored vaping products to stop smoking. Now this option will be out — at least in Denver.

Vape shops

Local businesses that sell vaping products could go up in smoke if this ordinance passes, since the stores generate so much of their revenue from flavor purchases.

"I'm very sorry for all of you. I think it’s terrible what’s going to happen to your business," Councilwoman Kendra Black said on November 29, gesturing to the crowd of people wearing "Vaping Saves Adult Lives" T-shirts. "To send a message at the expense of these businesses, I don't think is a good policy." Black proposed an amendment that would have exempted stores that only allowed individuals 21 or older to enter, but that proposal was rejected.

One of the retailers at the meeting was Phil Guerin, who owns Myxed Up Creations, a store at 5800 East Colfax Avenue that has been selling clothes, pipes and vape products for almost three decades. "History has taught us that bans don’t work," he told council. "And this is just one more example."
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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.