Denver Pushing to Raise Tobacco Purchasing Age, License Retail Stores

Ben Moran
The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment is pushing a bill that will raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 and will require tobacco retail stores to apply for licenses. The policy shift is aimed at lowering youth use of nicotine products in the capital of the state with the highest rate of youth vaping.

"The trifecta of raising the age of sale to 21, having a license to sell tobacco, and having a robust enforcement program should be effective in reducing youth access to tobacco products," says Tristan Sanders, public health manager at the DDPHE.

A Denver City Council committee will hear the initiative today, September 11. If the full council passes the bill, the new age requirement will take effect after Mayor Michael Hancock signs the legislation. And all tobacco retail stores, from gas stations to electronic-cigarette specialty shops, will need to apply for licenses by the end of 2020. Although liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries are required to be licensed by the state and municipalities, tobacco shops have thus far skirted these requirements.

The city will charge a one-time $250 application fee and then $500 if a store receives a license, which will be up for renewal on an annual basis, contingent on the store's history of compliance over the previous year. A store will be charged another $500 annual fee if its license is renewed.

The licenses will carry proximity requirements so that tobacco retail stores can't operate within a thousand feet of spaces that cater to children, such as schools and city-owned recreation centers. Tobacco retail stores will have to be at least 500 feet from each other, which is designed to avoid clusters of shops, something that Sanders believes contributes to non-compliance.

 The DDPHE says it engaged with shop owners and compromised on the proximity requirement, which was originally 1,000 feet. Sanders notes that current tobacco retail stores will be grandfathered in as long as they send in their applications by July 1, 2020.

"We’re not trying to put people out of business," he explains.

According to Sanders, Denver already has "the most robust compliance program for tobacco sales anywhere in the country," with four compliance checks a year at every store known to sell tobacco. Compliance checks involve minors going into a store with an investigator from the department standing nearby and attempting to purchase nicotine products, like cigarettes or e-cigarettes, without an ID.

When compliance checks first began in Denver two and a half years ago, one out of every ten checks found non-compliance, Sanders says. Now, a quarter of all checks for e-cigarette sales find non-compliance.

"Although we still see cigarettes [sold] to our minors, we see much higher non-compliance with e-cigs," Sanders says.

The penalties for non-compliance depend on the frequency and proximity in time of the violations, but range anywhere from fines to a tobacco-sale suspension. "It’s a suspension of all tobacco sales," Sanders explains. "And there are some stores where upwards of 70 percent of revenue are coming from tobacco sales."

Criminal penalties are imposed on particularly egregious offenders, and are doled out by the Denver Police Department, not DDPHE.

Other cities in Colorado, like Boulder, have banned the sale of flavored electronic cigarette juices. Sanders says that the DDPHE has explored that option.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is investigating electronic cigarette giant JUUL for alleged deceptive marketing practices that may have been aimed at appealing to youth, according to Colorado Public Radio. And nationally, public-health officials have been homing in on ways to lower rates of youth vaping. In recent weeks, a half-dozen people have died in various states from vaping-related illnesses.
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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.

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