Colorado has one of the highest teen vaping rates in the U.S., leading state lawmakers to consider restricting or banning certain vaping products. Now, the state's largest city is taking up that charge.
But Denver officials say they're still considering what those restrictions would look like.
Michael Hancock's office says the mayor is considering an outright ban, among other proposals, such as limiting product sales.
"[The mayor] is very much in support of protecting our youth," says Bob McDonald, executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment. "He recognizes the problem. He recognizes that vape products are a gateway to more conventional tobacco products."
In early December, local public health officials met with mayoral staff to present a range of policy proposals designed to tackle youth vaping and nicotine use, such as banning the sale of menthol cigarettes, prohibiting the sale of flavored vaping products, or even banning the sale of electronic cigarette devices.
City officials are likely to start a stakeholder engagement process related to the policy options in the next few months, according to Tristan Sanders, DDPHE's public health manager.
"I envision there will be something coming," agrees McDonald, such as a city ordinance, which would require city council approval.
Aspen, Boulder, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Snowmass Village have all enacted some sort of ban on flavored vaping products, according to Healthier Colorado, an organization advocating for such bans.
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"Five Colorado communities have already successfully implemented a nicotine flavor ban," says Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado. "These products are marketed to kids and come in flavors like cotton candy, apple pie and bubble gum. The industry has been very successful, especially here in Colorado, at hooking a new generation on tobacco. A Denver flavor ban would be a welcome step forward to fight Colorado's youth vaping epidemic."
Local vaping industry stakeholders, on the other hand, are against flavor bans, pointing to what happened in Boulder after its ban was enacted in August as a reason why.
"All that did was shut down the small businesses in Boulder and drive people to shop at neighboring communities," says Amanda Wheeler, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Smoke-Free Alliance and an owner of two vape shops in Colorado Springs.
In September last year, following an outbreak of vaping-related illness that was later linked to THC vaping additives, the Food and Drug Administration appeared ready to move forward with a complete nationwide ban on sales of all flavored vaping products. But after outcry from vapers and vaping industry stakeholders, the Trump administration pulled back on that plan and opted instead to ban flavored pods.
National polling shows that minors prefer pods, which can be bought in convenience stores and easily inserted into vaping devices, over e-liquid that needs to be manually poured into vaping devices. Flavored e-liquids will remain on shelves, even if the Trump administration follows through with its proposed ban.
McDonald isn't sure yet whether a vaping ban in Denver will simply bring the city in line with the announced federal regulations or will be more stringent.
"I don't know that we are in a position yet to say we are going to move forward faster with the feds or align with the feds or go farther than what the federal government is doing," McDonald says.
Denver officials have already tried to take action against teen vaping. In September 2019, Denver City Council passed a DDPHE-led ordinance that raised the tobacco purchasing age to 21 and created licensing requirements for tobacco retail shops. Shortly thereafter, President Trump signed legislation that raised the national tobacco purchasing age to 21.
State lawmakers are already pushing a bipartisan bill that would bring Colorado's tobacco-purchasing age in line with the new federal requirement. The bill would also enact a licensing requirement and increase enforcement mechanisms for age restrictions.
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Some legislators, like Senator Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, have proposed a statewide flavor ban. But Fields recently walked back her statement that she'd be carrying such a bill this year. There is, however, still a chance that a flavor ban bill could be introduced this session, according to lawmakers and state political observers.
"As things unfold at the state legislature, that’s really the other factor on our timeline," says Sanders.
State health advocates also want to see taxes raised on vaping products through a ballot initiative, which would mirror a failed bill from last year's state legislative session.
"We’re intent on getting a tax measure placed on the November ballot. It remains to be seen what route we’ll take," says Williams of Healthier Colorado. He expects such an initiative to be placed on the statewide ballot either by the legislature or through a signature-gathering campaign.