A Girl Scout troop, a pastor, a pediatrician and a state epidemiologist this week asked the Multnomah County Board of Health to restrict the sale of flavored nicotine, all in the name of improving public health.
Tobacco retailers and lobbyists, meanwhile, claimed they were the real public health victims. Poor parenting is to blame for the rise in teens who vape and use flavored tobacco, retailers said, recommending the Board charge youths for possessing tobacco rather than pass a sales restriction that retailers worry could harm their bottom lines.
“To those who blame us for their children's behavior or bad habits, I say, ‘Shame on you for the poor job you’re doing raising your children’,” said Rafa Hazza, owner of Vape Spot. “Teach them what’s wrong for right.”
More than 50 people testified the evening of Dec. 3, during a second public hearing on a proposal to restrict the sale of flavored nicotine products. The first hearing was Nov. 13. No future hearings are scheduled, but people can still submit written comments online.
The Board is considering a number of options including restricting sales of:
Flavored tobacco including menthol cigarettes
All flavored nicotine products
All flavored nicotine products with a carve-out for adult-only businesses.
Focus on the family
Eric Pinnell, owner of the Lane County shop Oregon Vape Society, said he relies on his own approach to parenting to keep his kids from taking up smoking or vaping. “I tell my daughter, ‘If I catch you, community service will be your life,’” he said Tuesday. “I raise my child, and now I’m being punished because other parents aren’t raising their children.”
Janna Collingwood, who works at Vape Spot in Portland, said the County should support a policy of harm reduction rather than abstinence. Teens are going to do things we don’t want them to do, she said. “We believe in harm reduction not abstinence. Abstinence doesn’t work,” she said.
Jason Weber owns e-liquid manufacturer Vape Crusaders in southern Oregon and sells to stores in Multnomah County. He said he prepares flavors including birthday cake. But he creates them for adults, he said.
“We are the truth tellers,” he told the Board. “We’re the public health victims.”
Paul Bates, owner of Division Vapor, told the Board they should know his name. After all, he said, he’s sued the state twice — first for adopting rules prohibiting e-liquids from depicting images or words that might appeal to minors, and again after Gov. Kate Brown declared a moratorium on the sale of flavored vaping liquids in the face of a vape-related lung illness that has caused two deaths in Oregon.
“I want to ask how you want to be remembered,” he said. He likened restrictions of nicotine to the War on Drugs, and chided the Board for considering a rule aimed at keeping teens healthy that would limit some choices for adults.
He asked why the Board wanted to restrict sales, anyway. “To protect the children?” he asked. “It doesn’t work.”
Research suggests, however, that sales restrictions do work. Consider:
The nation saw a drop in the probability of youth smoking and number of cigarettes smoked after the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned flavors (except menthol) in cigarettes.
Following enforcement of a flavored tobacco ban in Providence, Rhode Island, high school students’ e-cigarette use decreased 7 percent.
Lowell, Massachusetts, logged a 70 percent drop in availability of flavored tobacco products, a 5.7 percent drop in the use of flavored products by teens and a 6.2 percent drop in non-flavored tobacco products by teens just six months after restricting sales of flavored tobacco products, compared to a city that did not restrict sales of flavors.
In New York City, sales of flavored tobacco products among teens, and the odds that teens had ever used either a flavored tobacco product or any tobacco product, declined significantly after enforcement of a ban began in November 2010.
Many store owners asked the Board to prioritize business interests over public health concerns. Maher Makboul, owner of Mak’s Mini Mart, said he’s been in business since 1980, but that regulations are making his work more difficult.
“We work our tails off to make sure we don’t sell to kids. We are there for adults,” he told the Board. “With so much stuff, from taxes to licenses to fees, it’s becoming hard to do business in the City of Portland.”
“We are responsible retailers,” said Doug Peterson, a convenience store owner who said 22 employees depend on him for their income. “Think about the economic impact.”
Daniel Layme, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, including U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and the distributor Republic Tobacco LP, argued restricting sales in one county will simply be a boon for neighboring counties. “If you want to ban flavors of tobacco, let's ban all flavors attractive to youth,” he said, including liquor and marijuana.
“Let’s ban them all,” he said. “It levels the playing field.”
Carve out a caveat
Some industry representatives asked the Board to exclude their businesses from any restrictions on sales.
Art Way traveled to Oregon to represent R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, maker of Newport, the leading brand of menthol cigarettes. He asked the Board not to include menthol in any sales restriction. “The primary question is whether a ban is more beneficial than targeted public education,” he said. “When it comes to menthol, I don’t think it’s more beneficial.”
Cam Dekany, general manager of 82nd Ave Tobacco & Pipe, asked the Board to carve out an exemption for adult-only shops like his.
“No way anyone is going to find a bag of pipe tobacco in their high schooler’s backpack,” he said.
John Hill of the Oregon Cigar Association recommended that if teens are caught using nicotine, government should charge those teens with a violation instead of punishing the store that sold the product. Regardless, he said, teens don’t use pipes or premium cigars.
“For Pete’s sake, leave premium cigars and pipe smoke out of it,” he said.
But an analysis of compliance records from Multnomah County tobacco retailers shows that adult-only stores actually have a higher rate of selling illegally to minors than the County average.
While one-in-four tobacco retailers have failed at least one inspection since the state’s legal minimum sales age law went into effect, nearly one-in-three vapes shops have failed, while 40 percent of the County’s 12 cigar bars and smoke shops have failed.
Consider future costs
Parents, doctors, health officials and community leaders asked the Board to consider more than the immediate cost to businesses that may be required to curb sales. The future cost to government will be far higher if industry continues to cultivate a new generation of nicotine addicts.
“Tobacco accounts for $3 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity in Oregon alone,” said Christopher Friend, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, which has strongly encouraged governments to restrict the sale of all flavored nicotine products.
Friend also noted that some industry leaders now offering support for Oregon’s Tobacco 21 law Tuesday had actually opposed it when it was passed in 2018 — also out of fear for their bottom lines.
“Many business owners were in Salem saying T-21 would put them out of business,” he said. “They’re making the same argument here tonight.”
Djimet Dogo, director of Africa House at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, said African refugee youth are becoming addicted to nicotine because they think vaping is safe.
“They don’t know anything about vaping,” he said. “They see this little shiny thing you can plug into your laptop, and they’re told by peers that it doesn’t have tobacco, it won’t cause health issues.”
Among the teens who turned out Tuesday was Emma Cady, a senior at Beaverton High School and a member of the anti-smoking teen advocacy group Rebels with a Cause.
“I have seen classmates Juul in class. These small and easily accessible products are taking over teens’ lives,” she said. “We need to start speaking about the harmful effects of these products on our bodies.”
Four sixth-graders from Girl Scout Troop 40357 echoed those concerns.
“We think we should ban flavors in e-cigarettes,” said Gabriella, one of the Scouts.
“Companies say they don’t market to kids,” said troop member Alexi, but she said they make flavors like strawberry, cherry and watermelon — the same tasty flavors kids get in their multivitamins.
Emme, another Scout, held up a Ziploc bag with 12 DumDum lollipops, each one sharing a flavor with an e-liquid.
“Please, for our generation, ban flavors on vaping products,” she said.
School teacher Michael Choppie Grice applauded the courage of the youth who spoke Tuesday. “Their voice is very authentic,” he said. “Our kids are targeted, and more vulnerable than business owners here.”
Shon Neyland, the senior pastor at Highland Christian Center, said he also supports restrictions on the sale of flavored products.
“Oregon is getting in line and doing the right thing,” he said. “I do have sympathy for those retailers. However, we must take into consideration the lives of the children. It is time for us to make the change before more lives are lost.”
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, a health officer and epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority, rebutted industry arguments that e-cigarettes help people quit tobacco. Data is mixed on whether e-cigarettes help people quit. In Oregon, more than half of those who took up vaping to quit smoking now do both.
In fact, he told the Board, no e-cigarette company has even tried to get their product approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a smoking cessation device.
“People should have access to safe, effective ways to quit nicotine addiction,” he said, “E-cigarettes are not an evidence-based way to quit tobacco, and they are not free.”
Sidelinger encouraged residents to visit the Oregon Tobacco Quit Line for free cessation counseling and FDA-approved medications.
“When someone who uses tobacco enters a store and sees a massive display, that is a direct trigger for their addiction, leading to unplanned purchases, cigarette cravings and a lower likelihood of quit-success,” he said. “We can create environments that are less triggering and more supportive in our communities, and Multnomah County’s proposed ban on flavored tobacco products is a significant step in that direction.”