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Editor’s note: 12/10/21: On Friday afternoon, Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed the flavored tobacco and nicotine ban. The Denver City Council could still potentially overturn the mayor’s decision with a supermajority vote, meaning nine of the 13 councilmembers decide the law should still go into effect.
Ashok Budathoki opened his small convenience store, Community Mart, in the Westwood neighborhood in September of this year. The patrons who frequent the shop often come to purchase the sweets, chips, and non-alcoholic drinks he has available. But his most popular product by far is flavored tobacco, which accounts for more than half of his sales. “Most of the customers,” Budathoki says, “are coming for the tobacco.”
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On Monday, Denver City Council approved a ban on the sale of flavored nicotine that is set to go into effect in July 2023. The goal of the law is to limit children’s access to such products, but will allow the sale of hookah, pipe tobacco, and hand-made cigars. It may also upend the business model for countless mom-and-pop convenience stores like Budathoki’s that make a significant profit selling menthol cigarettes, flavored tobacco, and vape products, as well as the 21 independently owned vape shops that operate in the city.
“It will result in many small businesses having to shut their doors,” says Denver City Councilmember Kendra Black, who voted in opposition to the ban. “These businesses have leases and employees, and loans to banks. Kids aren’t walking into these stores to buy vapes.”
Councilmember Amanda Sawyer originally proposed the ban in October after discovering her child was in a text chain with other middle school students who were interested in buying flavored vape products on TikTok. Supporters say the ban is designed to prevent kids from obtaining the highly addictive and expensive products that entice them with sugary, kid-friendly flavors. Vape juice contains nicotine, which studies have shown can harm adolescent brain development. Flavored tobacco products also contain other harmful chemicals besides nicotine.
“This really is about public health. We make those decisions based not on positions of power and who contributes to the tax base, but it’s really about limiting harm,” Councilmember Jamie Torres, who voted to approve the ban, said Monday night. “Kids aren’t property owners and kids aren’t business owners. They are the ones telling us we need to make it less accessible to them.” Several Denver Public Schools’ students did attend the public hearing on Monday to show their support for the legislation.
Budathoki’s Community Mart is across the street from Kepner Beacon Middle School, and he says he has yet to have a child attempt to buy flavored tobacco products in his store. “I have a strict regulation in place,” Budathoki says. “I have a large sign, I check IDs, and ask for the date of birth.”
It’s tough to know, however, what the ultimate effect of a ban will be. A number of Colorado cities, including Edgewater, Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and Boulder, have similar laws. Boulder’s began in 2019 and did result in the closure of the only vape shop in the city. But the county health department doesn’t know whether the ban, along with a 40 percent sales tax on vaping products that voters approved in 2020, have decreased teen vaping rates. The most recent available data is from 2019.
Despite the fact that the ban could threaten his small business, which is bringing in just $100 a day, Budathoki understands why people want to limit the use of the harmful products. “One way or another, smoking will affect your life,” he says.
Budathoki could pivot to selling pipe tobacco, which is one of the only options he would have to make up for the loss of profit without flavored vape products. The independent vape shops in Denver, however, don’t have the same luxury. “The city took away over 90 percent of our business overnight,” says Monica Vondruska, who has owned two adult-only vape shops in the Mile High City for nine years. Her store sells e-cigarette vaporizers, accessories, and flavored tobacco liquids. Last month, Vondruska signed a three-year lease at a location on West 38th Avenue, which she is now seeking legal counsel to break.
On Friday, Mayor Michael Hancock did decide to veto the ban. The City Council can override his decision with a supermajority vote, meaning at least nine of the 13 councilmembers must approve the law. The initial vote was eight to three in favor, but two councilmembers who had previously opposed it were absent.
“The city of Denver left us in a place,” Vondruska says, “where either we have to expand into combustible tobacco to survive, or close, which is not a decision really at all in my mind.”