Overstepping or public protection? City Council looks to ban all flavored tobacco

An ad used by advocates of banning all flavored tobacco in Missoula intends to demonstrate the product’s danger to youth. The Missoula City Council on Wednesday moved one step closer to adopting the ban.

In stores across Missoula and the nation, shelves of tobacco products at checkout increase the impulse of buying the product while normalizing what anti tobacco advocates described Wednesday as a dangerous habit.

Their arguments pushed the Missoula City Council one step closer to banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products, regardless of the age of the buyer, leaving opponents to suggest that the city is setting itself up for a lawsuit on individual rights.

Tobacco Free Missoula coordinator Arwyn Welander said the flavors are attracting more youth than ever to nicotine and tobacco. If passed next month, the ordinance would ban the use of self-serve display cases and the sale of all flavored products.

“Much of what we do in City Council is to provide a Missoula that is beautiful, healthy and equitable to our future generation,” said council member Mirtha Becerra, who sponsored the ordinance. “This is our future generation. It’s kids that we are trying to protect. It’s putting in place measures that are going to help them not get addicted to a lifelong battle of health issues.”

While an existing 2009 federal ban already covers flavored cigarettes, the ban would cover e-cigarettes, hookah tobacco, cigars, smokeless tobacco and snus pouches. Menthol flavors in those groups would be banned as well.

Several council members described the rise of tobacco use among youth in Missoula as an “epidemic.” Becerra said COVID-19 only adds to the urgency of such a ban.

“I think there is a real sense of urgency with passing this ordinance especially during this pandemic, Becerra said. “We are seeing the number of COVID cases increase among the younger populations and if their lungs are compromised due to tobacco-related conditions, it can put them in a significantly more compromised situation.”

The ban, in cooperation with Missoula County and the Missoula City-County Health Department, would include all of Missoula and extend five miles beyond city limits.

The ban has already received support from both the county commissioners and the Missoula City-County Health Department, whose department would enforce it. The Missoula Health Board voted unanimously in favor of it and, in June, several medical community members recommended a ban similar to it.

The council voted in favor of moving the proposal forward 9-2, with council members Jesse Ramos and Sandra Vasecka dissenting. Council member Heather Harp was absent during the meeting.

Ramos called the proposal “virtue signaling,” saying “it’s not going to do anything at all” regarding underage use of tobacco products in Missoula. He said youth will just get flavored tobacco products elsewhere.

“I don’t want this to leave committee for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with the kids at all,” Ramos said. “I think this is the role of parents, not the government. And I know there is a huge number of people in our community that ultimately do use these products to quit, myself included. I chewed tobacco for about ten years and used flavored nicotine pouches for myself personally.

“I don’t think this really does anything, except make it a little more inconvenient for those that are acquiring this legally as adults for those trying to quit.”

Council member Gwen Jones said it is “disingenuous” to equate the ban and sale regulation as virtue signaling.

“For anyone who has happened to talk to kids who are attending high school in Missoula these days, it’s rampant in the high schools, and it is also throughout the middle schools … There are long-term health effects that are being inflicted on these kids, and we are not getting rid of all vaping products, it’s just the flavored. So for people who are trying to downsize or use it as a cessation tool from smoking to vaping, there certainly are other products out there, and this in no way limits their ability to use those.”

Becerra said e-cigarette use among high-school students has increased “exponentially” by 135% between 2017 and 2019. In Montana, 58% of high school students have tried e-cigarettes and more than 30% use them regularly. 

Vasecka said the proposal would overstep what the government should do and expressed concern with how this would affect local businesses. If the ordinance passes, people could still get flavored tobacco online.

All this is doing is hurting local businesses and helping people shop online even more than they have before, especially during this pandemic,” Vasecka said.

Becerra said that is far from the intent of the proposal.

“The intent is not to fracture the integrity of local businesses. What this is about is protecting a vulnerable portion of our population in our community,” Becerra said.

Advocates said the ban would follow similar rules in more than 270 communities across the nation.

This isn’t the first time similar efforts have been made to ban flavored vapes in Montana in the past years. However, flavored e-cigarettes are usually the sole target instead of all flavored tobacco products.

In spring of 2019, House Bill 312, a bill banning flavored vapes in Montana, was proposed but was killed in committee. Later that year, Gov. Steve Bullock ordered a 120-day ban issued on flavored vapes over health concerns and slow action by the government.

And in August, the Montana Health Department dropped a proposed statewide ban on flavored vapes. A portion of state legislators opposed the ban questioning whether it met legislative intent.

In a press release Aug. 14 announcing the withdrawal of the proposed ban, the Montana Health Department said “it is apparent that more education and collaboration is necessary.”

Stacie Anderson, council member and chair of the committee, said they need “to take steps” with local government being “the leader on this when federal governments are behind the ball.”

“For those who don’t know what is going on with our youth in Missoula right now, it is huge,” council member Gwen Jones said. “It is an epidemic. And I think it’s high time we handled it.”

There will be a public hearing on the ban Oct. 19 during the Missoula City Council. The council will make a final vote on Oct. 26.