The Missoula City Council heard from business owners, pediatricians, teachers and others during a three-hour public hearing Monday night on a proposal to ban self-service tobacco displays and flavored tobacco in city limits and five miles beyond.
From the roughly fifty public comments at the meeting, slightly more comments were in favor of the ordinance than against.
Those against it represented business and convenience store owners, existing users and citizens who believe the ordinance would be ineffective. Those in favor represented a mixture of activists, pediatricians and teachers.
Lauren Wilson, a mother of two kids in Missoula schools and vice president of the Montana chapter of American Academy Pediatrics, said her organization supports the ordinance “wholeheartedly.”
“As a pediatrician, I see young kids using vaping products. The industry has done a good job of convincing kids that they’re safe. They believe it. Their parents often believe it. We have had parents leave vaping cartridges at the nurses’ station at our hospital, and these are ubiquitous,” Wilson said. “Kids find it easy to get these products now, and kids are kind of opportunistic users. If they’re not around, then they are not going to be used in such high quantities.”
Representatives of several convenience stores and vape shops spoke out against the ordinance during the meeting, some saying the fault lies in the hands of parents for not educating their children well enough.
They said a ban is unneeded as they are already stringent with their identification policies for products, with many saying if employees sell to a minor, the employee will be fired.
“What this ordinance is going to do is punish only those stores in Missoula for a crime they did not commit,” said Keith Bowman, owner of Ecig Vapor Juice Store in Missoula and other locations across Montana. “Whether it is your intention or not, it does not make a difference. What is going to happen is that this ordinance is going to put numerous shops out of business, as well as cripple convenience stores.”
Tommie Dobbs, co-owner of Liberty Vapor, said 76% of their sales come from flavored juices that would be banned by the ordinance.
“If this ordinance was enacted, it would put us out of business,” Dobbs said. “We don’t have the extra things to sell in our store. We don’t have the potato chips, the soda, the gas. We do not get any revenue from those types of things that the gas stations do.”
And according to John Monahan, sales manager of several Noon’s stores in Missoula, if the ordinance passes, he “would like the City Council to come into our stores and tell me which five of my employees I am going to terminate.”
“I think a couple people said, ‘Hey, let’s go after Big Tobacco.’ You’re not going to hurt Big Tobacco, but what you are going to hurt is your local retailers and your Main Street retailers,” Monahan said.
C.B. Pearson, campaign manager for Montana Kids Against Big Tobacco, said Reynolds Tobacco, who makes Camels, Newports and others, and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-libertarian political advocacy group, are running a campaign against the public health policy.
“Good public health policy starts at the community level, and it’s nice to see that we are fighting big tobacco and their surrogates right up front,” Pearson said.
According to Facebook’s ad library, Reynolds Tobacco’s parent company, Reynolds American Inc. is running a targeted $5,000 Facebook ad campaign against the ordinance. Americans for Prosperity ran a Facebook and Instagram ad campaign operating under a budget of less than $100.
While opponents contend that in a period of economic recovery, the last thing they need is economic restrictions, some proponents say that public safety calls for it.
State Representative Kimberly Dudik said the 2009 flavored cigarette ban is now insufficient, and the industry is seeking to create new users as “old ones die off.”
“It is time that we update our laws to reflect a new reality with tobacco that has occurred with the flavored vape products,” Dudik said. “It is time that we have to decide whether we prioritize the health and safety of our children, or whether we prioritize the wealth of a few individuals who are going to profit off of the products that make our children sick and lifetime tobacco users. I fall on the side of protecting our children.”
According to a Plos One study, those flavors attract youth to vaping more than adults, and that is what helps create “a different kind of beast,” said Katie Wyskiver, a teacher at Hellgate High School.
“I asked how many students have seen somebody vape in class that week, almost every hand went up. How many of them have used the restroom and experienced somebody vaping in that restroom, all hands went up. How many of you have been offered a vape, all hands went up. And so, like some of the other commenters have said, it is really easy to conceal and easy to use. It is a different beast,” she said.
Missoula citizen Kaylee Cunningham said they should focus on creating a strong community and better education over a ban. She personally uses flavored vaping as a way to deal with her nicotine addiction.
“I am 25 years old and I have been addicted to nicotine since the age of 18, and vaping especially with flavors that I can enjoy, can help me curb my craving significantly, and to be frank I don’t really see another path to quitting without flavored vape products, even if we were to keep the tobacco products,” Cunningham said.
The City Council on Monday received a letter signed by over a hundred teachers, parents, advocates and health professionals supporting the ordinance. This is in addition to support from the county commissioners, the Missoula Health Board, the Missoula City-County Health Department and other medical organizations.
The city council also received a letter Monday regarding the legality of such an ordinance. According to Thomas Briant, the executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, existing state laws take precedence over a city ordinance, raising concerns over its legality. As a result, Briant advised the city to consider not going any further with the ordinance.
Randy Cox, a lawyer who helped defend the State of Montana earlier this year when Gov. Bullock’s 120-day emergency ban was challenged by the vaping industry and business owners, supported the ordinance. He said putting proof together for the case was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
“I was stunned to find overwhelming evidence establishing the serious and irreversible health effects of vaping, especially its effect on young people,” Cox said. “I was shocked at the evidence of widespread use all the way down to grade schools. I was astonished by the parallels between cigarette marketing tactics directed to kids in the 60s and 70s and how they are being used now.”
The City Council will make their decision on the ordinance Oct. 26.