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Missoula City Council mulling citywide ban on all flavored tobacco

Those backing the push to ban flavored tobacco products said protecting teen health outweighed the right of adults to purchased their preferred product. But some called it an infringement on law-abiding adults.

Saying they’ve lost decades of tobacco prevention efforts to a resurgence of vaping products laced with “kid friendly” flavors, health officials from across Missoula on Wednesday urged members of the City Council to ban the sale of flavored tobacco.

That includes mentholated cigarettes, flavored cigars and smokeless tobacco, something even health officials said would pit their health concerns against the individual liberties of adults.

The City Council’s typically mundane Public Safety and Health Committee took up the controversial issue in response to the health lobby’s push to ban the products. The meeting was informational but could lead to future policy considerations by the city down the road.

“In the early 2000s, significant strides were made to reduce tobacco use among our youth,” said Arwyn Welander, coordinator of Tobacco Free Missoula. “However, progress made in the last 20 years is being undone by the practices of big tobacco.”

Welander joined several other health officials in asking the City Council to consider policies that would end the sale of flavored tobacco in city limits. While most of their concerns focused on the rise of teen vaping, some are seeking to target all tobacco users regardless of age.

Those backing the push to ban flavored tobacco products said protecting teen health outweighed the right of adults to purchased their preferred product.

“The bottom line, in terms of the action you should take, is that anything containing nicotine and flavor of any kind should not be sold,” said Dr. Robert Stenger. “I understand there’s an individual freedom argument to be made. In my opinion, the ability of not being able to get bubble gum flavored vape juice is far outweighed by the prospect of a third of our middle school and high school students becoming addicted to nicotine.”

According to health officials, the production and consumption of flavored tobacco products has increased over the past few years. The use of e-cigarettes among high school students increased 135% from 2017 to 2019, they suggested.

The State of Montana issued an emergency order last year prohibiting the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes in the state. But some council members, urged by health officials, want to take that further by removing the rights of adults to purchase and use flavored products.

That troubled council member Sandra Vasecka.

“It means you can go fight for our country but not smoke a cigarette. This is becoming an nanny state,” she said. “We must not continue intruding on our neighbor’s liberties. The government is acting like if it didn’t tell us what to do, the American citizens would walk outside while it’s raining and stare at the sky with their mouth open until they drowned.”

Vasecka was alone in speaking out against the proposal on Wednesday and most expressed support, even urgency to act. The measure was referred to committee by council member Mirtha Becerra, who supports the proposed ban.

“It’s no secret that kids are attracted to sweet candy flavors, they’re intrigued by bright packaging and the novelty of these products, and the tobacco industry knows it,” she said. “It’s not just e-cigarettes but other products like smokeless tobacco and cigarellos that are part of the problem.”

Becerra said “hundreds of cities across the county” have taken action, adding that some community members are urging Missoula to follow.

“I believe that particularly, in light of the current pandemic, it’s important for us to take action and protect the health of our kids and their lungs.”