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Denver City Council vote to override mayor's veto of a flavored tobacco ban fails

flavored tobacco
Posted at 5:31 PM, Dec 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-14 00:21:45-05

DENVER — The mayor's veto of a flavored tobacco ban will stand after a Denver city council vote Monday evening failed to override the veto.

The city council voted last Monday to approve Council Bill 1182, which would prohibit the sale of any tobacco product or component that’s meant to disguise the taste of the product. However, four days later, Mayor Michael Hancock issued a rare veto of the bill.

"We can work on this in a more collaborative way, and we can also move to enhance our existing regulatory framework, in addition to pursuing a broader strategy by acting state-wide or at least regionally," the mayor said in a statement.

The city council voted one more time Monday on whether they wanted to overrule that veto. In order to do so, the city council would have needed a super majority.

“I am hopeful that we will have the votes to override him because this was the right thing to do to protect our kids and adults who are already at it,” said Councilwoman Deborah Ortega, one of the main proponents behind the ban. “This is a public health issue. Denver has been a leader in addressing public health issues around tobacco for a long, long time.”

In his veto, Hancock said a more regional or statewide approach is needed in order to truly make a difference in youth smoking rates in the community. The mayor also said the ban would not only hurt minority-owned businesses, but that teens would simply travel to another city in order to get flavored tobacco.

In response, Ortega said Denver has led the way on numerous previous issues, with other jurisdictions following suit, so she doesn’t understand the hesitancy this time around.

“It very similar to what we did when we outlawed spray products that were being used for tagging," she said. "We did that legislation and then neighboring jurisdictions followed. We’ve done that on many, many things."

While there is no guarantee other cities will follow, Ortega believes it’s still up to Denver to try to lead the way before more people become addicted.

“It’s a matter of willpower," she said. "Do we, as a city, think that protecting public health of youth and adults is important?"

Meanwhile, Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Pubic Health, tells Denver7 he understands the mayor’s reluctance, but says cities have taken their own strategy to try to reduce smoking rates in the past, like going smoke-free.

“Clearly, sort-of a regional effort or metro Denver effort would be better," he said. "On the other hand, I would say let’s get a starting point."

Samet says there is a trade-off between personal choice and public health when it comes to these flavored tobacco products. For example, with secondhand smoke, governments have determined that a person’s choice stops when they begin to affect the health of those around them.

Proponents of flavored tobacco argue that these products are often used by adults as a step-down while they try to stop a nicotine habit.

“You have a question of a harm reduction strategy that makes these products available to addicted smokers who want to have something less risky while protecting youth," Samet said. "That’s really at the heart of the discussion, and that’s a problem that needs very careful policy thinking."

Samet is not confident that the data gathered about these flavored tobacco products supports the idea that they help people kick tobacco habits, particularly since these products have increased their nicotine content.

For the roughly 20 smoke shops around the city that sell flavored nicotine, it was a limbo as they waited for Denver City Council to decide their fate.

Phillip Guerin has been the owner of the Myxed Up Creations Smoke Shop for 29 years. He says these products make up 30% of his revenue, and a ban on the products would hurt his shop and put others out of business completely.

“Just because it’s 30% of our business does not mean that that’s not a fatal blow to our business. We operated about a 10% profit margin, and so take 30% right off the top, that’s really going to cut into the meat down to the bone,” Guerin said.

Lately, attending city council meetings has become a big part of Guerin’s job as he and others fight to protect the personal choice of adults.

“It’s not simple what they’re trying to do, and what they’re doing is not the right way to go about it, and so there’s been a lot of debate on this issue," he said. "I think they will make the right decision. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be hard to go against the mayor."

Instead of a flavor tobacco ban, Guerin says he would support stricter enforcement of the rules the city already has in place, particularly when it comes to age restrictions for who can enter and buy products from these stores. He would even support more punishments for businesses that sell to underage teens, including a loss of licenses, if that makes a dent in teen vaping rates.

Guerin reiterated several times that he does not support teen vaping and thinks education is key. However, he says adults deserve to make their own decisions.

Now that the veto override failed, city council could choose to send the question to the voters to decide.

The city council was able to successfully work around a similar veto by the mayor last year when they gave voters the power to do away with the pitbull ban.

Ortega tells Denver7 she has a lot of other issues she is working on, so she’s not sure that she would be the one to attempt a measure like this, but she didn’t rule out some of her colleagues trying to send it to the ballot box.