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Healthier public or 'more of a black market'? Denver close to raising smoking, vaping age

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Posted at 4:50 PM, Sep 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-11 21:33:15-04

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DENVER – Denver is now just weeks away from banning anyone under 21 from smoking or vaping. The city council safety committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the age of tobacco and nicotine sales from 18 to 21 years old.

The proposal now goes before the full City Council for a first vote on Sept. 23. If it passes on final vote, the new age limit would take effect immediately.

“It’s about a healthier public,” said Tristan Sanders, public health manager at the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “Preventing access to tobacco products for our youth.”

Many believe it's a long time coming, others think this could blow up in the city's face.

“If anything, it’s going to create more of a black market,” said Jason Purcell at the vape shop 710 Pipe on Colfax Ave.

While there's no question smoking and vaping is bad for you, at what age should you be able to buy?

“I don't agree with raising the age,” Purcell said. “I don't really think it's going to stop anything."

Denver’s new law would also require vape shops and other stores to carry a license to sell tobacco and nicotine, much like alcohol and marijuana sales.

"When passed, this law will hold retailers accountable if they are selling tobacco and nicotine products to those under 21 years old," Sanders said. “It’s of great concern to us, given the usage rates that have skyrocketed in the last two to three years. About 95% of lifelong smokers started before they were the age of 21."

But some teen users says they’ll simply find other ways to buy.

“I’ll buy them online," an 18-year-old named Marcos said.

Logan Manfredi went through a similar thing while living in New York when the age was raised.

"It made it more difficult for me to get cigarettes," Manfredi said.

And it eventually led him to quit – even despite the argument that at 18 he was old enough to vote and serve his country.

"I think people, in general, don't want to do things that require an extra step,” Manfredi said. “And adding that extra step kind of deters people. Let’s raise the age of everything to 21. Let’s just make 21-year-old adults."

The American Heart Association says if you cut off sales to 18-year-olds, you cut off the pipeline to teens even younger.

"Because it's more likely for someone who's 18 to be spending time with someone who’s 16 or even younger than that, because they might even still be in high school," said Naomi Amaha-Gollnick, community advocacy director with the AHA. “You have many products and flavors that are truly designed for youth to want to use them."

Denver certainly wouldn't be the first city to raise the minimum age. More than 500 cities and 17 states have already raised the age nationwide.

"We are just the next one,” Sanders said.

"Today was a really good step forward in the city of Denver," Amaha-Gollnick said. “We have to start taking this threat seriously.”

Ruby Johnson believe she almost lost her daughter, Piper, to vaping.

"I was driving her to college and she started coughing and said she wasn't feeling well," Ruby said.

She drove her daughter from Illinois to Colorado and they ended up at a hospital rather than Piper’s school.

“At first doctors thought it could be pneumonia,” Ruby Johnson said.

Instead, it was sudden and severe lung illness.

“Make no mistake, e-cigarettes are a grossly unregulated industry that are targeting our children in an effort to create a new generation of nicotine addicts," Ruby said. “We need a change. We need these products out of the hands of our kids.”

A recent CDC study found that more than a quarter of Colorado high schoolers are vaping or using e-cigs

“And I think a lot of kids are vaping when they’ve never even smoked cigarettes,” Manfredi said.

Sanders says the new law would bring tobacco and nicotine in line with alcohol and marijuana in Colorado, in terms of regulations.

“To go through a licensing process that’s very similar to alcohol and marijuana is a good thing,” Sanders said.

“I think we’re up to six reported deaths because of e-cigarette use,” Amaha-Gollnick said. “It’s truly an epidemic and tipping point.”