On October 6, Denver City Council (specifically the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee) held a public hearing to discuss an ordinance to ban the sale of flavored “tobacco products,” including nicotine vapes. The bill was created and sponsored by Councillors Amanda Sawyer and Deborah Ortega.
The Denver City and County chamber was packed, and councillors remarked that they hadn’t seen a meeting so full since COVID. Advocates on both sides were fired up, frequently breaking into applause or reacting with obvious anger as various points were made.
In attendance were doctors, lawyers, students, vape and convenience store owners, people who vape and representatives of anti-vaping organizations—including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK), Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes (PAVE) and Flavors Hook Kids, whose members were highly visible in bright red T-shirts.
“We don’t know how harmful vaping products are because they are not FDA-approved,” said Sawyer, speaking before the agency for the first time authorized a (non-flavored) vaping product that it deemed “appropriate for the protection of public health” on October 12. “What side of history do you want to be?”
Sawyer proposed the bill after her 12-year-old daughter was sold vaping products by another child in her class. “Children start smoking because they are initially attracted to flavored tobacco,” she added, without reference to concerns that bans will create new forms of criminalization and incentivize use of riskier products.
“Vaping more than triples the odds that kids will use cigarillo or cigar products,” she added. Yet that odds ratio only indicates a measure of association, not causation. Additionally, research, together with the experiences of millions of former smokers, suggests that vaping is typically a “gateway” out of—not into—smoking. And the overwhelming majority of teens who vape daily are either already smoking or have previously tried it.
“She was physically addicted and was using two and sometimes three pods a day, which is equivalent to 40 to 60 cigarettes.”
Genene Brown, a volunteer for PAVE, spoke, like Sawyer, about her daughter’s experiences of vaping. “She was physically addicted and was using two and sometimes three pods a day, which is equivalent to 40 to 60 cigarettes,” she said.
The term “equivalent” may fit when it comes to the amounts of nicotine involved. However, when it comes to harms, nicotine is not the cause of them. Nobody is advocating for children to use nicotine. But vaping has been found to be around 95 percent less harmful than smoking. And if vapes weren’t available, research suggests that more kids would be smoking instead.
Councillor Ortega stated that she became involved in the effort when students presented a massive poster showing all the different chemicals in nicotine products. However, while e-liquids may contain chemicals that are dangerous at high doses, such as diacetyl, these are present only in trace amounts that represent greatly reduced toxicity compared with cigarettes.
Some members of the public cited racial justice in supporting the ban. “I am passionate about health and achieving health equity,” said Dr. Terry Richardson, a retired medical doctor and the vice chair of the Colorado Black Health Collaborate. “Big Tobacco has spent the last 60 years targetting the Black community. Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans.”
Almost 80 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, and there is no doubt that this is a result of tobacco companies’ historical marketing of menthols to Black communities. Smoking takes a heavy and disproportionate toll on Black health. Yet research shows that menthols are not more harmful nor more addictive than regular cigarettes.
And when it comes to banning menthols, as has been proposed federally, a key point is that the criminalization of drug sales and possession has always targeted people of color. Eric Garner, for example, was killed by police after being accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes on the street. And nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and nearly 60 percent of those in state prison for drug convictions are Black or Latinx.
“Prohibition does not work. Please do not pass this.”
Some influential voices in the room asserted the futility of such an approach.
“Prohibition does not work,” said Jesse Lashawn Parris, who is running for Denver mayor in the May 2023 municipal election.” People are just going to go to other municipalities to get these products … You’re literally trying to ban tobacco products that adults smoke on a daily basis to supposedly keep them out of youth hands, but they’re still going to have access to these products. They will find a way. Prohibition does not work. Please do not pass this.”
“I feel strongly that adults who are over 21 should be able to legally purchase alcohol and tobacco products,” said Councillor Kendra Black. “I do not think kids should have access to these products.”
“One study said that both smoking and vaping are going down in the general public and among kids,” she continued. “I’m trying to take that knowledge with what I’m hearing that vaping is going up and more kids are smoking, because I can’t get those two things to come together.” She was correct that recent youth vaping rates have declined significantly, together with a long-term decline in smoking.
One of Black’s Council colleagues similarly struggled to reconcile the proposal with the evidence. “We like to work from data,” said Councillor Kevin Flynn. “We don’t want any kids to smoke … What is the data that shows this [ban] is effective? Because I’m having trouble seeing this as accomplishing what we all want.”
“Did you take a meeting with Tobacco-Free Kids?“
Sawyer responded that her data came primarily from a presentation created by the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment and their partners at CTFK, an organization funded by billionaire vaping opponent Michael Bloomberg.
“Did you take a meeting with Tobacco-Free Kids?“ she asked Flynn. “I would recommend that you do, and a lot of our data has been provided to us by them.”
Recent evidence shows that San Francisco, where flavored vapes are banned, saw an increase in youth tobacco use after the policy was enacted. Sawyer said of this that “SF data says it didn’t stop all kids from smoking … I know we’re not gonna stop all kids from smoking with this ban. That’s not the point. The point is to stop access to this product.”
It seemed a strange priority.
Small business owners were among the most outspoken participants. “We open 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Hoa Loung, who immigrated from Vietnam and has owned a gas station in Denver since 1994. “The flavored tobacco is 30 percent of my tobacco profit. The customers that buy tobacco usually also buy gas and food … As the result [of the ban]… I will have to lay off my employees and eventually close my business since I cannot work 16 hours a day, seven days a week by myself.”
“I don’t think the ban is going to stop young people from getting their hands on it.”
A ban “would put people out of business,” echoed Black, “and not let people over 21 purchase those products … 12-year-olds can walk to Glendale or get their friends that are 21 to drive to Glendale … I ordered a blueberry vape online and it only asked me my birthday but not any sort of verification, so I don’t think the ban is going to stop young people from getting their hands on it.”
Towards the end of the hearing, Flynn proposed extending the discussion period. Sawyer disagreed, stating that “Ortega and I have met with every single councilmember with the exception of one and we’ve had these conversations.”
“It would be appropriate to make a motion to postpone until the first available date,” Flynn insisted. “We have not had the opportunity to meet as a body and discuss … we’ve had one-on-ones and we’ve reacted individually and that’s not the best way to do it.”
He got his way, with a short delay agreed to allow more conversations to take place. The Committee will now decide on October 27 whether the bill should advance to a full Council vote.
Screenshot of the hearing via Denver City Council