Washington County mulls retailer ban for vapes, flavored nicotine
The Washington County Board of Commissioners is considering a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products at retail locations that serve people under 21.
On Sept. 21, the board held a public hearing and second reading of the ordinance, which would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, synthetic nicotine and the devices used to inhale them at any retail location where people under 21 are allowed.
It also would prohibit retailers from discounting or using promotional prices for such products.
Twenty-two people spoke during the public comment period of the board's virtual meeting, with a majority of speakers opposing the ordinance.
Supporters of the ordinance said the action would be a bold step toward limiting youth access to harmful products amid an explosion in the use of vaping products among teens across the country. Healthcare officials and members of youth substance use prevention groups primarily make up supporters.
Opponents, mostly local convenience store owners and product distributors, said the ordinance would unfairly disadvantage them in the marketplace, causing them to lose a substantial portion of their revenue as they continue to deal with financial impacts of the pandemic.
They added that state laws, including a 2017 law that raised the minimum purchasing age of tobacco and vaping products to 21, already adequately prevent the sale of such products to minors.
"We know from years of public health research that these strategies are effective strategies to prevent youth initiation of tobacco," said Marni Kuyl, director of the county's health and human services department, at the meeting. "We also know that the tobacco industry does more advertising and discounts in (neighborhoods that) are low-income, among people of color."
Kuyl presented data showing that 63% of eighth-graders and 75% of 11th-graders who reported using tobacco products use flavored products. She said the data came from a health survey by the Oregon Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
Additionally, she said, local surveys show that 58% of people support banning flavored tobacco and vaping products and 61% of people support prohibiting price promotions of such products.
During the public comment period, Anna Tegen, western region advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said such policies are the best way to prevent the use of tobacco and vaping products for youth.
"The whole nation, including kids in Washington County, we're facing a public health crisis — all in the middle of a pandemic," Tegen said. "That health crisis is teen tobacco use. With almost 17 percent of Washington County's 11th-graders and almost 8.2 percent of eighth-graders vaping, protecting kids' health and preventing their addiction should be our top priority."
Representatives from trade groups and retail distributors based both locally and nationally countered the arguments in favor by questioning the efficacy of such policies and saying they would be difficult to enforce.
They said youth who want to purchase flavored tobacco and vaping products would simply look to a neighboring county to buy them.
Saeed Anwar, an owner of convenience stores in Washington County, said one-fifth of his business comes from flavored cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
He said this loss of revenue from the ordinance would force him to reduce the number of people he employs.
Following the public comment period, Commissioner Nafisa Fai proposed a series of amendments to the ordinance that would broaden the ban.
The amendments would ban the sale of flavored tobacco, synthetic nicotine and the devices used to inhale them broadly throughout the county, including at retail locations where only people over 21 are permitted.
"The power of public health is really about prevention," Fai said. "We're moving from restriction to a ban."
In response to Fai's proposed amendment, Commissioner Jerry Willey called the action inappropriate, saying he would need more time to review the implications of the amendments before voting for them.
"It was a total change in direction of what we're doing here," Willey said. "I think it's very disingenuous that we kind of bait-and-switch at the last minute."
He added that representatives of businesses serving only people 21 and older would likely want to comment on the amendments.
Commissioner Roy Rogers agreed with Willey that the amendments dramatically changed the scope of the ordinance, saying he couldn't support them.
He also suggested he wouldn't support the original scope of the ordinance, pointing out the potential losses of revenue for businesses.
Kathryn Harrington, the board's chair, said she supported the intent of Fai's proposed amendments to expand the ban.
While she said she empathized with Willey and Rogers wanting to know more about the implications of the amendments, she pushed back on their assertion that it was inappropriate procedurally.
"It is neither disingenuous nor is it inappropriate for her to be making such an amendment," Harrington said. "This is how the legislative process works."
Fai later withdrew her motion to adopt the amendments so that the board could review them.
A motion to consider the ordinance further and have additional public comment at a meeting on Oct. 19 passed 3-2, with Willey and Rogers voting "no."
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