Washington County poised to ban flavored tobacco, vape sales
The Washington County Board of Commissioners revised a proposed ordinance Tuesday, Oct. 19, to include amendments that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco and flavored vaping products countywide.
As originally proposed, Ordinance 878 would have prohibited the sale of flavored tobacco and synthetic nicotine products, as well as the devices used to consume them, at retail stores where people under 21 are permitted. The ordinance would have also prohibited retailers from discounting or using promotional prices for such products.
At a previous public hearing on the ordinance Sept. 21, Commissioner Nafisa Fai proposed amendments expanding the ban on sales of flavored tobacco and vaping products to include all retail locations.
Fai later withdrew her proposed amendments after receiving pushback from commissioners Jerry Willey and Roy Rogers, who complained they were not previously notified of Fai's amendments and said the expanded ban went too far.
The amendments were brought up for consideration again when commissioners met Tuesday, and a vote Tuesday to adopt them passed 3-2, with Willey and Rogers voting "no."
The board also voted to hold a fourth reading and third public hearing on the ordinance with the new amendments at its meeting on Nov. 2, when the board could vote to adopt the ban. Willey and Rogers also voted "no" on holding the next reading and public hearing of the ordinance.
The votes Tuesday followed a public hearing that included nearly two hours of testimony from more than 40 people.
Kathryn Harrington, the board's chair, noted that commissioners also received more than 150 written comments on the ordinance from the public within the last week.
Supporters of the ordinance — including parents, public health officials and representatives of anti-smoking and vaping groups — say the ordinance is an important tool to prevent harmful tobacco and vaping products from being used by local youth amid an explosion of teen vaping nationwide.
At previous meetings, the board heard reports from county public health officials who referred to research showing that teen use of such tobacco and vaping products declines in places where such restrictions are in place.
They said the marketing practices of tobacco and vaping product companies, as well as the flavored products themselves, are crafted to appeal to youth, low-income residents and people of color, creating a disproportionate public health impact on those groups.
During a work session last week, commissioners were provided with data showing that 9% of eighth-graders and 18% of 11th-graders in Washington County use e-cigarettes. The data came from a 2019 survey of teens by the Oregon Health Authority.
Opponents of the ordinance, who outnumbered its supporters during the public hearing, included convenience store owners, retail distributors and trade group representatives.
Store owners said the ordinance would dramatically reduce their revenue as they're still feeling the economic impacts of the pandemic. Some said they will have to cut staff or even close completely.
They argued that the ordinance would be ineffective at reducing tobacco and vaping product use among teens, who could still travel to other counties or go online and try to purchase the products there, putting Washington County retailers at a competitive disadvantage in the region.
They added that the ban will make it more difficult for people who use vaping products as a smoking cessation tool to access the products.
Retailers who exclusively sell to people 21 and older, including smoke shop owners, also spoke out against Fai's proposal at Tuesday's meeting.
Ahead of the vote to adopt the amendments, Fai said she was elected last year to protect the community, and the ordinance with the amendments would do that.
"This will really help reposition Washington County (with) bold commissioners, as a bold board that really changes the trajectory of Oregon, and empower others to follow our suit," Fai said. "This is a hard decision, but we're ultimately protecting our community and our youth."
She also said she expects county economic development officials to work with impacted businesses to pivot their business plans in reaction to the ordinance.
Commissioner Pam Treece commended her colleagues for doing their due diligence to evaluate all stakeholders' positions on the ordinance, adding that she visited several convenience stores to discuss potential impacts.
"I'm a grandmother with four grandchildren under the age of 12, and frankly, the number of children using tobacco products in our county was shocking to me," Treece said.
Rogers said that while he's against tobacco use, he doesn't believe the ordinance will reduce tobacco and vaping use among teens, making the impact on businesses not worth it.
He voiced support for similar statewide legislation, however, saying it was sad legislators haven't committed to pursuing such legislation.
Willey, who spoke for longer than the other commissioners, chided his colleagues for being willing to enact the ordinance, which he said will have extreme and unnecessary impacts on businesses.
He called out Treece in particular for coming to the meeting with her mind made up about how she would vote, instead of being willing to discuss alternatives that could still reduce youth tobacco and vaping use.
"We should be able to find something that works for everybody," Willey said. "This is a bad idea. A ban is not going to accomplish what I think Commissioner Fai started out. I don't think it's going to accomplish what her focus was, and it's certainly not going to focus what we as a county would like it to."
In her comments, Harrington thanked county staff for their support, community members for providing testimony and Fai for asking questions that challenged the board.
"Having a complete ban on flavors will eliminate the advertising and marketing (of) these products," Harrington said. "This assists in discouraging youth access and initiation, as well as denormalizes the use of tobacco in our communities."
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