Boulder firming up stance on banning flavored tobacco, nicotine sales

Four-hour public hearing elicits strong feelings from educators, parents, business owners

A.J. Rorie Jr. blows smoke rings with his vaping device while shopping at Mile High Pipe and Tobacco on the Pearl Street Mall on Tuesday. (
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Tobacco and nicotine-infused products sold in Boulder may be about to taste different.

Boulder City Council on Tuesday considered new rules banning the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine, including menthol cigarettes, electronic cigarettes and vapor juice varieties that taste like anything other than tobacco.

While a formal vote on the rules was not taken, council had before it an amendment to the rules that would exempt cigarettes, little cigars, cigars and chewed tobacco and nicotine products, leaving only the recently popularized flavored e-cigarette and vaping products to be impacted by the ban. Another amendment would have allowed flavored tobacco and nicotine products to be sold in stores that strictly prohibit anyone younger than 21 from entering, similar to how Boulder’s marijuana businesses check identification at the door before letting a customer into the shopping area.

With approval of the flavor ban, council also would approve raising the legal age to 21 for purchasing any tobacco or nicotine products that remain legal under the possible new rules.

Council provided direction to city staff to draft one version of the rule that would allow for sales of some vaping flavors, and another that would ban all flavored vaping items. Council likely will opt for one or the other and vote later this month, and a final reading is slated early September.

Councilwoman Cindy Carlisle supported a complete ban on flavored tobacco and nicotine at the start of council deliberations.

An hours-long public hearing drew comments from parents and local educators concerned about the risks of flavored nicotine luring teens into addiction, as well as adult smokers, business owners and electronic cigarette users who felt the flavor ban would unfairly eliminate their choices as consumers and shut down their stores.

“When I was 15 myself, I started smoking cigarettes,” said Avani Dilger, who works as a substance abuse and addiction counselor in Boulder. “It was the hardest battle of my life to quit. I have never seen the rapid development of an addiction to nicotine like I’m seeing today” because of e-cigarettes.

Even residents of the county in areas that would not be affected by the flavor ban addressed council. A trio of Nederland High School residents made the trip down Boulder Canyon to support council tightening its rules on who can buy e-cigarettes and what kind of vaping products can be sold in the city.

“The student body at my school is not affluent, and yet we can still afford to buy vapes and Juul pods,” said Helen Cross, one of the Nederland students. “My friends, they can afford to share them with other students. I am certain that if it was taxed heavier, and became more expensive, younger students would not be able to get into it.”

Council also is considering raising local taxes on tobacco products. Boulder staff has given council two options: one would put a 15-cents-per-cigarette tax on traditional smokes, plus a duty of 40% of the sales price on other tobacco products. This would potentially raise a staff-projected $6 million to $7 million in public revenue. The other would exclude a new tax on cigarettes and only put the 40% tax on non-cigarette tobacco items, and result in a predicted $2.4 million in revenue for the city.

Colorado’s state tax rate on cigarettes is 39th highest in the country.

A decision on which tax the council should pursue was hinging on whether a black market for single, “loose” cigarettes and other products would develop under higher costs.

No pushback against raising the age to buy tobacco and nicotine emerged. Industry leader Juul supports raising the age to 21.

But several anecdotes were relayed from e-cigarette and vape liquid users who have weened themselves off of cigarettes, which they considered more harmful to their health, by using the non-traditional products to satisfy nicotine cravings. The Boulder Vapor House was thanked several times for its staff and product offerings that helped residents quit smoking cigarettes.

Boulder Vapor House owner Ginger Tanner said about half of her customers are 21 and older, and half are between 18 and 21. The business makes 8% of its e-liquid sales on tobacco flavored products, with non-tobacco forming the rest. About 19% of e-liquid sales were menthol-flavored, Tanner said, and 73% were flavored liquid, but non-mint or menthol.

Councilwoman Mirabai Nagle asked staff if it would be possible to grandfather in sales of certain flavors that have shown a track record of success in helping community members quit traditional smokes.

“I came into this thinking of a complete flavor ban as well, but it is really difficult hearing testimony from people that it has helped,” Nagle said.

A search of Federal Drug Administration data on tobacco compliance inspections shows three violations for sales to a minor occurred in Boulder from 2017 to Tuesday, out of 42 checks performed by the agency in that time. Out of those violations, two were for sales of e-liquid at King Soopers 1650 30th St., and a Conoco convenience store at 1650 28th St., and the other was for cigars at a Conoco at 3375 28th St.

Officials in the future hope to create a retail licensing mechanism for businesses selling e-cigarettes and vape liquid.

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