Prohibition could soon be coming to Denver, although alcohol won’t be banned. Instead, on October 6, a Denver City Council committee will vote on a proposal to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including flavored vape juices.
“Vaping, particularly youth vaping, is a public health crisis in Denver, across the state and across the country. The ban is specific to flavors because it is the thing that kids identify as what drew them to smoking in the first place, and the goal here is to get kids not to smoke in the first place,” says Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who is co-sponsoring the initiative with Councilwoman Debbie Ortega. Sawyer became inspired to work on the ordinance after the principal at her child’s middle school called to say that Sawyer’s sixth-grader was on a text chain with a group of students, “one of whom was trying to purchase flavored vape products off TikTok and resell it to their friends,” she recalls.
Aside from banning flavored vaping products, the proposed ordinance would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products consumed by chewing or smoking, including menthol cigarettes and hookah tobacco. The only acceptable tobacco products would be tobacco-flavored products.
The proposal builds off years of fighting against flavored tobacco products by such organizations as the American Heart Association, Kaiser Permanente and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which argue that vape companies are using flavored products to hook kids onto vaping.
“Denver has led in many ways in the past. You know, we banned the free distribution of tobacco products on the 16th Street Mall that used to be handed out freely to just about anybody that would take them. We banned advertising at the National Western Stock Show,” says Ortega. “And I think this is another example of where we can lead. Whether neighboring jurisdictions choose to follow or not, that’s up to them. But I think this is a public-policy issue that’s worth bringing.”
The October 6 committee meeting will allow fifteen minutes of public comment on the flavor ban proposal. Sawyer recognizes that it’s a “controversial issue,” and former smokers who kicked the habit by switching to vaping are likely to speak.
“I’m proud of the fact that I have helped probably thousands of people,” says Phil Guerin, who has owned and operated Myxed Up Creations, a store at 5800 East Colfax Avenue that sells clothes, pipes and vape products for almost three decades. The shop generates significant revenue from vape products, especially since “you don’t have to be a child to appreciate flavor,” he notes.
“I’ve seen city council have a lot of knee-jerk reactions to a lot of things, and this is just another example of basically a prohibition, and it’s not going to work because it’s a prohibition,” Guerin adds. “They’re not taking into consideration that we already have very strict age restrictions in place that we enforce. We are militant, I’m vigilant.”
But Denver officials have concluded that vape flavors are hooking kids.
“The biggest area of concern for us is that one in five kids uses vape products regularly,” says Tristan Sanders, public-health manager at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, citing data from a Healthy Kids Colorado survey. And eight in ten kids who vape use flavored products, according to the Food and Drug Administration. “What these kids are interested in, and why they’re using these products, kind of centers around them being flavored and attractive to kids,” adds Sanders.
At the beginning of 2020, Mayor Michael Hancock came out in favor of further regulating flavored vaping products. Although Sanders and other DDPHE staffers looked into what a ban might look like, ultimately the Hancock administration did not push a proposal, saying that a policy fix should be handled at a statewide level. Still, high-ranking administration officials are voicing support for Sawyer and Ortega’s proposal.
“Denver Public Health and Environment absolutely supports the concept of a flavor ban,” DDPHE’s Will Fenton said during an August 10 town hall hosted by Sawyer and Ortega.
On a federal level, the Trump administration spearheaded a partial crackdown on vaping products that took effect in 2020. Stores are no longer able to sell flavored pods, the disposable cartridges that vapers place into electronic vaping devices; the only pods shops can still stock are menthol- and tobacco-flavored ones. The federal crackdown did not affect flavored vape juices that come in bottles and that vapers pour into pods or vape devices themselves, however.
The FDA is currently reviewing applications for vaping products, with companies required to show that the products can have a positive impact on moving adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes while having a minimal impact on youth use of tobacco products. But while the FDA has denied applications for more than 946,000 flavored vaping products, the agency has not yet ruled on whether Juul, which accounts for 40 percent of the vaping market share, can keep selling its products.
The proposed Denver ordinance makes no exception for any type of flavored tobacco products, including those sold in hookah lounges. “Part of it is, the minute you start doing one carve-out, the expectation is you should do more,” Ortega contends.
Sawyer says she’s received pushback from representatives of the hookah lounge industry. “They can sell regular tobacco. There’s no limitation on that. We’re not banning all tobacco products,” Sawyer says. “If it is as culturally ingrained as they claim it is, then flavor or no flavor, people will still smoke hookah. Because it’s about getting together.”
But “there’s nothing that’s [hookah] tobacco without flavor,” says Hamza Alfukaha, the owner of Highland Hookah Lounge, who plans to testify at the council committee. Underage individuals aren’t coming into his establishment, since the business has “security by the door” to check IDs, he adds.
The inclusion of hookah tobacco in the ordinance is “shortsighted,” says Hassan, the owner of Casablanca Hookah Lounge in southeast Denver. “This bill, when you apply it only to hookah, it will not make any sense. When you apply it to the hookah, it will be like, ‘What are we talking about?’ The only thing that is common is flavored tobacco. It’s a different type of tobacco, a different type of flavor. It’s not going to encourage kids to start smoking.”
Hassan believes that a ban on flavored hookah tobacco will just send hookah smokers to neighboring towns. “We have regulars who come in after work who relax and smoke hookah and mingle with friends and so forth,” he says. “Now you’re going to take away that? How is that going to help Denver? They’re just going to look for a city nearby to smoke hookah.”