Denvers proposed ban on flavored tobacco may be amended to exempt hookah

A proposed ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products in Denver got bogged down Wednesday as members of the City Council’s safety committee debated a handful of amendments including changes that would exempt hookah lounges and menthol cigarettes.

Committee members will have three weeks to work on things behind the scenes, agreeing Wednesday to pick up the measure — and the five changes proposed so far — again at a meeting on Nov. 17 before it can be moved along for consideration by the entire City Council.

Brought forth earlier this month by Councilmembers Amanda Sawyer and Debbie Ortega, the ordinance would make it illegal to sell items including flavored cigars, e-cigarettes, vape pens, vape juices, menthol cigarettes and shisha, the flavored tobacco used in hookah pipes in Denver. The sponsors and their backers argue it’s a public imperative, with flavored products being used to lure in young people and make them smokers for life.

“The youth smoking and vaping epidemic is what we are trying to solve for here,” Sawyer said Wednesday “It is an extraordinary problem. It has been declared an epidemic by the Surgeon General.”

Adults over 21 could still possess and use those products but they would have to buy them somewhere outside city limits. Seven other Colorado municipalities have similar bans.

Some of Sawyer’s fellow safety committee members disagreed with an approach they view as too restrictive and likely to drive many small retailers out of businesses.

“This is not being done with a scalpel, it’s being done with a sledgehammer and we are going to impact adults and prevent them from buying products that they want to buy,” Councilwoman Kendra Black said.

Proposed amendments talked about Wednesday included an exemption for premium cigars and pipe tobacco and another carve-out for menthol cigarettes.

Councilman Kevin Flynn proposed the menthol amendment late Tuesday night after he said he heard from members of Denver’s Black community that both favored and opposed the inclusion of menthol products, a style of tobacco products that has been disproportionately marketed to the Black people. He didn’t see it as the Council’s place to take that decision out of people’s hands.

The hookah lounge exception is viewed as the most important change to its backers because all shisha is flavored tobacco. The practice of smoking shisha out of hookah pipes in communal settings is a cultural practice that goes back centuries in many Middle Eastern cultures.

“As written, the flavor (ban) would put all of the hookah lounges out of business,” said Councilman Jolon Clark, who proposed the amendment.

Earlier on the meeting, Clark brought a separate proposed ordinance forward that would make it illegal for hookah lounges to allow customers to smoke between midnight and 7 a.m. The 15 to 20 lounges operating in the city today can stay open after bars close at 2 a.m., leading some, including one located in Clark’s District 7, to become hotspots for early morning violence and other bad behavior, he said.

That measure was forwarded to the entire Council and was back by the National Hookah Community Association.

“We are behind reasonable regulation that addresses the main issue,” Rima Khoury, an attorney with shisha brand Fumari and secretary of the association said via Zoom. Khoury added, “a broad ban on flavors would have unintended consequences since shisha has always been flavored.”

Sawyer told The Denver Post earlier this month that the lobbying effort around the proposed ban has been intense. On Wednesday she said she and Councilwoman Ortega were opposed to amendments that might “erode the value of this proposal.”

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