Aspen City Council is pushing ahead with an ordinance that would ban flavored tobacco products in Aspen, despite pushback from retailers and one council member. Nothing is yet finalized, however, and the council will still have to get through two more meetings on the policy before it becomes law.
The city of Aspen in June 2017 became the first municipality in Colorado in 2017 to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21, and city voters that November with 70 percent in support approved a local tax on tobacco products that will reach $4 per pack of cigarettes, or 40 percent on other tobacco products.
In its continuing quest to reverse a trend that is seeing teenagers take up tobacco use, in particular vaping and e-cigarettes, at increasing rates, the city council in March began considering an outright ban on all flavored tobacco products. This would include flavored vaping liquids as well as menthol cigarettes and wintergreen or other varieties of flavored chewing tobacco.
In a work session on Monday night, city environmental health director CJ Oliver informed the council that after running the flavored tobacco ban by the handful of retailers in the city that sell the products, “we were essentially met with some pretty significant resistance.”
Oliver noted that the city’s tobacco-policy work has been targeted at curbing teen usage. He further noted that one retailer — later identified as Mike Haisfield, who owns Aspen’s two gas-station convenience stores — voluntarily pulled all e-cigarette and vaping products off his shelves after the city launched its “tobacco 21” effort.
In conversations with Haisfield, as reported by Oliver, he told city officials that he would not support an outright ban on flavored tobacco products such as menthol cigarettes and flavored chew, as the items make up a significant portion of sales. Retailers also questioned whether the outright ban would do much to curb youth tobacco use since it is already illegal for those under 21 to purchase the products.
Oliver said retailers were warmer toward the idea of only banning flavored vaping liquids. He suggested that council could amend the policy in that direction, go ahead with the comprehensive ban, or table the plan altogether.
A lineup of public health and education officials expressed their support for the city’s initiatives when Mayor Steve Skadron opened the floor for public comment.
Jordan Sebella, with Pitkin County Public Health, thanked the council for its work and urged members to proceed with the comprehensive ban.
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“You are on the forefront of how to protect youth from this huge epidemic that is happening,” she said.
Tracy Doyle, with the University of Colorado School of Public Health, told the council that “the state is cheering you on” and that council’s groundbreaking tobacco 21 age limit “made it possible to go to communities like Golden and Lakewood and say someone else is doing this [and you need to consider it too],” Doyle said. She added that, so far, those Denver suburbs have yet to jump on the tobacco 21 bandwagon.
Sarah Strassburger, assistant principal at Aspen High School, said that students that use tobacco have told her that they were attracted to the habit by flavored vaping products. Traditional cigarettes are not particularly popular with students, she said, adding that she “can’t speak to the full ban.” But she said banning flavored e-cigarettes would help limit the allure to youth.
Councilman Adam Frisch said he was not ready to support the comprehensive flavored tobacco ban, suggesting that city council’s outreach to the business community has been insufficient. The council owes those retailers a “sincere conversation,” he said, especially since the primary retailer involved — Haisfield, who was not in attendance — is “doing the right thing” by having proactively stopped selling flavored vaping liquids. That action is “pretty monumental in the convenience store industry,” Frisch said, noting that e-cigarettes are the fastest growing tobacco product to be introduced in generations.
Frisch further chastised his fellow council members for having “short memories,” apparently referring to conflict that arose with business owners involving city plans to play a more active role in the transportation sector. Proposed initiatives raised last year to convert parking spaces to bike lanes and subsidize ride hailing services were criticized by segments of the city’s business community and the council eventually shelved the plans, with Frisch saying they were examples of poor communication with the community and a city hall disconnect from employers.
Interim City Manager Sara Ott noted that city staff has reached out to all tobacco retailers and invited them to Monday’s meeting. None showed up. She asked for “clarity” on what more outreach would look like.
“We have gone over backwards to try to reach them,” she said, adding, “Certainly it takes two for there to be a party.”
Frisch, it turned out, was alone in his call to slow down the proposal to ban all flavored tobacco products. Councilwoman Ann Mullins said all the feedback she has received on the idea has been supportive and she “would rather protect kids than cigarette sales.”
Mayor Skadron said that, while he is sensitive to Frisch’s concerns, he was more persuaded by the vision put forward in the Aspen Area Community Plan that states that the health and wellbeing of all residents should be a cornerstone principle. A comprehensive ban goes furthest to support that value, he said.
Bert Myrin has been on vacation since late April and was not in attendance, though he will be back next week when the council takes up the measure on first reading at Monday’s regular meeting.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who seemed to be weighing the comprehensive ban versus the focus on flavored vapes, noted that there would be two more chances for the public to weigh in on the policy. Those will come at Monday’s meeting and then at the May 20 public hearing where the matter would be up for a final vote. He supported moving forward with the comprehensive ban on the grounds that it is not yet a done deal.
“I am somewhat reluctant to tell someone who is over 21 that you can’t buy flavored tobacco in this town,” he said, but the comprehensive ban would do more to “help protect our youth.”