Op-Ed: Council Takes Aim at Wrong Target in Effort to Stop Teen Vaping

Denver City Council will vote December 6.
Denver City Council will vote December 6.
click to enlarge Denver City Council will vote December 6. - DENVER.GOV
Denver City Council will vote December 6.
On December 6, Denver City Council is poised to end the sales of flavored tobacco products citywide. They say it is to prevent and end tobacco and nicotine use by young people. Not only will it not stop rebellious teens from seeking ways to skirt the ban, but it will destroy local businesses, cost jobs and send tobacco sales to the illicit market. It is perplexing that despite overwhelming opposition to this ordinance, the city council appears prepared to move forward.

Retailers are the best line of defense

Keeping our youth safe and healthy is a priority for all of us, including tobacco retailers. It is why we invest in state-of-the-art identification technology and training to ensure our employees are in compliance with federal, state and local age-verification laws. Like our city leaders, we are responsible community members who believe tobacco and nicotine products are not for young people. So why is the city council targeting small businesses that uphold the law and check IDs, knowing full well that sneaky teens are going online to illegally purchase these products right under their parents’ noses?

As Westword reporter Conor McCormick Cavanagh reported, Councilwoman Amanda 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.” Her child is not alone. TechCrunch reported in January that “…TikTok videos featuring top brands of disposable e-cigarettes and vapes for sale have been relatively easy to find on the app. These videos, set to popular and upbeat music, clearly target a teenage customer base with offers of now-unauthorized cartridge flavors like fruit and mint in the form of a disposable vape. Some sellers even promote their 'discreet' packaging services, where the vapes they ship to customers can be hidden from parents’ prying eyes by being placed under the package’s stuffing or tucked inside other products, like makeup bags or fuzzy slippers.”

Lives of hardworking Denver workers forever changed

Councilwoman Sawyer and anti-tobacco advocates know adults and minors are able to simply go to a neighboring city or buy these products online from unscrupulous sellers, yet they are intent on bringing down law-abiding, responsible local businesses and their employees. Convenience store owners estimate that 36 percent of their store sales come from tobacco and nicotine product sales. Tobacco sales also drive ancillary sales of gas, food and other products, and keep them in business. When retailers’ sales levels drop, they have to adjust payroll. They will be forced to lay off hardworking employees. It is the same for tobacco stores like ours. When Glenwood City Council passed a sweeping flavor ban, along with a local tax, we lost 82 percent of our store volume. Our shelves were emptied. We were forced to let go of two employees and two more resigned due to the uncertainty and reduced hours. They simply couldn’t make ends meet. Today the store is limping along, and barely surviving. There are real consequences to these unnecessary and uninformed campaigns in the form of lives forever changed.

Get the facts

Those who support the ban of flavored products meant for adults are presenting outdated information — some of it three decades old. They say retailers position tobacco products near candy and gum in their stores. It’s simply not true. We invite councilmembers to visit and see for themselves how businesses are following the current restrictions and displaying flavored tobacco products appropriately.

Let federal actions work

In 2019, Congress passed a federal law that raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21 nationwide. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called for removing fruity, disposable vapes and e-cigarette cartridges. The FDA also ruled that retailers must pull any e-cigarette systems off the market unless their manufacturers had submitted them for a premarket tobacco product application (PMTA). The FDA is still processing applications, but this deadline removed millions of e-cigarette products from the marketplace.

For all of these reasons, I urge the city council to reconsider their support of this ordinance. It will decimate local businesses and won’t have the intended effect.

Mary Szarmach is the senior vice president of governmental and external affairs for Smoker Friendly.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.