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Missoula council to send tobacco ban back to committee for more review

Missoula City Council member Mirtha Becerra, one of the sponsors of an ordinance proposing a complete ban on the sales of flavored tobacco in Missoula, has sent the measure back to committee for more review. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula City Council has delayed its final decision on a proposed ban on all flavored tobacco initially planned for Oct. 26, and will instead vote on sending it back to committee for revisions.

According to council member Mirtha Becerra, one of the five sponsors of the ordinance, they didn’t want to rush the ban and planned to “bring it back into something we are comfortable with.”

“It’s a complex issue. It’s no secret that in order to decide we need to hear from a wide variety of people like supporters and medical professionals, and we felt we needed to better consider those voices,” Becerra told the Missoula Current.

The ordinance would go back to the Public Safety and Health Committee on Nov. 4 for amendments and language revisions, according to Becerra. If it gets out of committee, the revised ordinance will have a public hearing Nov. 9.

This is after two public hearings on the ordinance this week, with medical professionals, teachers and activists supporting the ordinance, and business owners, managers and organizations criticizing the ordinance. The Missoula Chamber of Commerce this week came out against the measure as well.

During the second public hearing in a Public Safety and Health Committee meeting, Brad Longcake, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (MPMCSA), gave a presentation against the ordinance.

Longcake represents nearly all the convenience stores and gas stations across Montana. Several Missoula retailers who are part of MPMCSA spoke against the ordinance.

During the hearing, Longcake called retailers “the frontline defense” and said they’d be willing to work with the council to come up with a more suitable decision.

The flavored tobacco ban would also prohibit self-service displays, where some forms of tobacco are placed in front of the checkout. While many retailers have said they don’t utilize self-service displays, Dan Beard, district manager for Town Pump, said he still has a couple of stores in Missoula using them. However, those will be removed in the next week, he said.

“Over the next week, that’s being converted because that is just something that it makes sense for us that that would be something we need to do,” Beard said. “I’ve taken measurements for it this week, so we are eliminating that at our Town Pump locations in the city.”

Council member Amber Sherrill has asked for clarification on numbers related to the ordinance.

“The thing I really want to drill down on is this 30% of sales, because I was under a different impression on Monday of what number was being quoted,” Sherrill said. “I’m hearing now that maybe it is gas and chips and everything else. I would like to see some numbers I think on what I believe Ms. (Julie) Merritt and Ms. (Stacie) Anderson were talking about, like what percentage of your sales are from flavored tobacco products.”

Greg Tabish, owner of Western Montana Petroleum, said 30% of their in-store sales are tobacco – a figure quoted to the Missoula Current from other tobacco retailers.

Traditional tobacco sales like cigarettes are about 50% flavored, including menthols. Smokeless tobacco sales are 75% flavored. Cigarillos sales are almost 100% flavored and vape juices are 100% flavored.

Out of that 30% in tobacco sales, vape sales account for 5%, or 1.5% of their sales total.

While City Attorney Jim Nugent permitted the ordinance to go forward with its current language, council member Sandra Vasecka cited a previous opinion provided by Nugent in February on whether Missoula could create ordinances relating to vaping and self-service displays.

She said the opinion suggested that municipal governments can’t adopt laws more stringent than existing state laws. This follows a letter the City Council received on Monday from Thomas Briant, executive director of National Association of Tobacco Outlets, saying state and federal laws override the proposed ordinance.

“This is an emotional issue, but taking emotions out of it, legally we cannot do this. We have to act in accordance with state law,” Vasecka said on Wednesday. “I think we should take this off the table, bring it back to committee, so we can discuss it because there are other ways to do this without outright banning it altogether.”

The roughly one-hour public hearing concluded prematurely on Wednesday due to councilors needing to start their next committee meeting. Only members of the public opposing it spoke during Wednesday’s hearing.

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