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Push to ban sale of flavored tobacco, vape juices in Denver sparks intense debate

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Push to ban sale of flavored tobacco, vape juices in Denver sparks intense debate

A push to outlaw the sale of flavored smoking products in Denver has drawn Big Tobacco, mom-and-pop vape shops, hookah lounges, health care providers and social justice advocates into a fight over public health, business rights and the freedom of choice.

The proposal under consideration by the Denver City Council is becoming one of the most intensely debated issues in City Hall in recent years, with public health advocates saying a ban would help end the teen vaping crisis while the opposition argues the city would be going too far in restricting access to products that adults have a right to use.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is a disagreement among the opposition over what kind of compromise — if any — can be reached.

As Phil Guerin, a Denver vape shop owner, said, “The vape people are throwing the hookah people under the bus and the hookah people are throwing the vape people under the bus.”

If passed by the City Council, the ordinance would outlaw the sale of any flavored smoking products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, e-cigarettes, vape pens and juices, and shisha, the tobacco used in hookahs and smoked in lounges across the city.

While Denver would become the seventh Colorado municipality to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, the ordinance would not prohibit people from possessing or using them.

The bill next will be discussed at 10 a.m. Wednesday during the council’s safety committee meeting in the Council Chambers at the Denver City and County Building.

The idea to outlaw the sale of flavored tobacco products started with Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who says she became alarmed about children’s access to vaping products last spring when her then-12-year-old daughter was part of a text chain in which another student was trying to purchase vaping supplies off TikTok to share with friends.

That led to a parent-child discussion about the dangers of smoking. Except Sawyer said her children didn’t believe vaping was harmful.

“I was really startled when they said, ‘It’s just cotton candy,’” Sawyer said, referring to vape flavor. “‘It’s not a big deal. It’s not unhealthy.’”

Sawyer decided to push for a sales ban in Denver. Sure, the illicit market would remain and people could drive to Aurora, Arvada, Lakewood or other neighboring cities to buy products, she said, but the best step to curb youth use would be minimizing their ability to get the products in their own neighborhoods.

“A flavor ban really is the single remaining piece beyond aggressive taxation, which I’m not interested in,” Sawyer said of what governments can do to curb teen vaping.

Councilwoman Debbie Ortega signed on as a co-sponsor and the two introduced the bill — setting off one of the hottest fights in City Hall in years.

“The tobacco industry has hired every lobbyist in town, which is extraordinary. It’s something we’ve never seen before,” Sawyer said. “Every lobbyist in town is knocking on every council member’s door to talk about this.”

Preventing kids from becoming users

Those who support the ban argue that it’s in the best interest of the public. They fire off statistics and health studies that illustrate that e-cigarette use, or vaping, by teens is on the rise and that it’s harmful to their health.

The U.S. Surgeon General has declared e-cigarettes an epidemic. On Sept. 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration issued a report that showed an estimated 2 million American middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2021, with eight in 10 of them preferring flavored e-cigarettes — with fruit, sweets and mint being the preferred flavors. More than one in four high school students and one in 12 middle school students use them daily.

E-cigarettes are loaded with highly addictive nicotine, a chemical that harms the developing adolescent brain, the CDC and FDA report said.

Already, Denver and Colorado ban tobacco sales to anyone younger than 21. In Denver, the Department of Public Health and Environment visits retailers to find out if they sell to underage consumers, although the pandemic put a pause on enforcement between the spring of 2020 and August of this year, said Natalee Salcedo, the city’s tobacco administrator. In a normal year, investigators inspect more than 2,000 retailers.

People on both sides of the debate have used the city’s enforcement data to prove their points or accuse the other side of lying. But the break during the pandemic makes the data incomplete, and the enforcement unit shifts its tactics so enforcement priorities are not the same every year.

For example, during one quarter in 2018, Denver’s public health department visited tobacco retailers of every type and found a 3% non-compliance rate. But during the next quarter, the enforcement unit focused on e-cigarette retailers and the non-compliance rate jumped to 19%, data shows. And when inspections restarted in August, investigators focused on unlicensed retailers and found 10 out of 77 businesses would sell to minors.

Jodi Radke, the Rocky Mountain/Great Plains regional director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said flavored products need to be outlawed because tobacco companies target children in marketing in hopes of addicting them at a young age. It’s an old strategy that tobacco companies have used for generations, she said.

“The goal of this policy is to prevent these kids from becoming the lifelong adult users who regret making the decision to use when they were 13, 14 or 15,” Radke said.

Carmen Martin, a Denver mother to 12- and 14-year-old daughters, said one daughter recently saw someone buying mango-flavored e-cigarettes in a drug store and told her mother, “Who wouldn’t want to smoke mango? That sounds delicious.”

That comment led to a family talk.

Martin said she started smoking at 12 and knows how easy it is to become hooked. She smoked for 15 years, quitting before she had children, and she doesn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps because the health risks are too great.

“We know the flavors are there to hook kids. It’s a ‘no duh,’” Martin said. “I don’t feel like it’s something we need data around when there’s chocolate and cotton candy and strawberry. That’s intentional. The tobacco industry knows if they can hook a young person, that’s a consumer for life and they’ll use until they die.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Phil Guerin, owner and founder of Myxed Up Creations, a store that sells vaping products, poses for a portrait in his shop at 5800 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver on Oct. 20, 2021. The Denver City Council is considering a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including vape juice.

Valuable tool for quitting smoking

On the other side, those who sell e-cigarettes and the assorted flavors argue they’re a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes because they don’t include the tar and other chemicals that cause lung cancer and other diseases.

Adults have a right to choose what to smoke, said Joe Miklosi, the chief executive officer of Bridge Consulting, who is working for Rocky Mountain Smoke-Free Alliance, a coalition of 125 vaping stores in Colorado, including 21 in Denver.

“People are desperate to quit smoking, and then they can use vaping and quit in a weekend,” Miklosi said. “The health organizations need to honor that. You need to meet people where they are. These mom-and-pop businesses poured their life savings into these businesses because they believe in helping people.”

Monica Vondruska, who owns Cignot Colorado at 1412 W. 38th Ave. in northwest Denver, said a ban would drive her out of business because her store’s entire focus is vaping supplies.

She doesn’t sell Juul or other e-cigarette brands owned by large tobacco corporations. And she offers various products with different levels of nicotine so smokers can ween themselves from their addictions over time. She believes vape pens and juices are legitimate alternatives to cigarettes because her husband used them to kick the habit.

“Adults deserve the ability to make that choice,” Vondruska said. “You’re standing in the way of people converting to a less harmful product. Period.”

Guerin, who owns Myxed Up Creations at 5800 E. Colfax Ave., called the ban a witch hunt, saying he agreed that teens should not use e-cigarettes or any other form of tobacco. But he said stores such as his keep the flavored products out of young hands with self-imposed rules and good business practices.

“Right now, it’s in my hands. I am a responsible business person,” Guerin said. “I still live in the same zip code I was born in. I know everyone. I have an 11-year-old daughter. My daughter goes to the same school I went to. I don’t condone my daughter using vape.”

In this fight, though, the businesses that oppose the ban are not all aligned in their fight to stop it.

Grier Bailey, executive director of the Colorado Wyoming Convenience Store Association, said the ban is too wide because it includes flavored cigars and cigarettes, neither of which has been declared a youth health crisis. If the City Council wants to end teen vaping, then ban flavored vaping products, he said.

The broad flavored tobacco ban is being pushed by advocacy groups that want to outlaw all smoking, he said.

“The health people are using a teen vaping crisis to knock off another couple of items that are on their wish list,” Bailey said. “It doesn’t seem to be a very balanced policy.”

The owners of hookah lounges are lobbying the City Council to carve out an exemption for their businesses. They maintain their lounges only allow people 21 and older in the doors and no teen is going to try to sneak a bulky water pipe with all of its hoses into their bedrooms, said Hrant Vartzbedian, executive director of the National Hookah Community Association.

“We feel vape and namely Big Tobacco has abused that relationship and has been trying to sell to kids,” he said. “We believe hookah is collateral damage to vape’s problems.”

Vartzbedian also said he has explained to council members that hookah lounges are an important part of immigrant cultures, particularly for people from the Middle East. It’s a familiar place for people to socialize and relax.

“It’s their scene. You take this from them, what are they going to do?” he said.

Targeting people of color

Hookah isn’t the sole cultural argument introduced into the debate.

The sales ban would include menthol cigarettes, which are smoked primarily by Black people.

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Guregian: No need to pump the brakes on the Patriots. They’re for real.

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Guregian: No need to pump the brakes on the Patriots. They’re for real.

The game came down to a testament of wills, but more important, coaching decisions.

Playing in crazy elements, with gusting winds and blustery freezing temperatures, surely altered the game plans for the Patriots and Bills in this Monday Night Football showdown of AFC East titans.

That’s why the Patriots having Bill Belichick remains a huge advantage.

He identified the way to win in those elements, and stuck with it no matter the down and distance.

He was going to be conservative with his offense, sink or swim.

That plan didn’t include much of Mac Jones.

Belichick ran, ran, and ran some more. Every down, every possession, he had Jones hand the ball off, and it worked to the tune of a hard-fought 14-10 win in Orchard Park.

If the Patriots had lost, there would inevitably be more questions about Belichick’s strategy, but it’s hard to argue with results.

The Patriots now have seven straight wins, and remain atop the AFC East at 9-4, and also stick as the AFC’s top seed.

After the game, Belichick called the conditions “somewhat challenging.” Naturally, he didn’t make a big deal out of only throwing the ball three times.

“We kind of played the way we felt we needed to win,” said Belichick.

Usually, the Hoodie makes opposing teams play left-handed, taking away their best asset.

Against the Bills, he voluntarily played left-handed, taking Jones out of the mix. And the Patriots still ruled.

Talk about taking the starch out of the Bills, who had to be deflated being crushed in the trenches, and losing their grip in the division so soon.

Plus, they have no idea what to make of Jones, still having to face him again down the road.

Maybe some — including the Bills — will feel Belichick’s strategy was an indictment on the rookie quarterback, who passed just once in the first half, and only twice in the second half.

It appeared more a reflection of Belichick sticking with what he felt was the best way to win. Ditto offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

Heavy personal, ground and pound. Nonstop. Forty-six running plays, three passes.

“The coaches have been in a lot of games like this,” said Jones. “Coach Belichick, Coach Josh, they’ve been in every type of element there is. They know what it takes to win.

“So I think we knew if we held onto the ball, we’d be OK.”

Jones, who was experiencing those nasty conditions for the first time, doesn’t have the strongest arm, and in those winds, Belichick didn’t want to take a chance.

The elements spoke to the Hoodie, and he and McDaniels didn’t blink with their intentions to pound the rock, and also, rely on the defense to keep Josh Allen at bay.

Even the strong-armed Allen (15-for-30, 145 yards) had some difficulty rifling some balls through the 40 mph winds.

Turnovers loomed large. Ball security and field position was paramount.

Ultimately, Belichick wasn’t trying to earn style points, he was trying to win a significant football game.

And that’s just what he did.

No need to pump the brakes on these Patriots, even playing old style football. They’re for real. They are legitimately going to make noise down the road.

And that just eats away at Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who refused to give Belichick much credit for the win, or simply being out-coached.

“I don’t think, with all due respect, it’s not a Bill Belichick type thing,” said McDermott, “it’s what are you doing with the opportunities you got.”

Well, the Bills certainly didn’t do much. They were 1-for-4 in the red zone, and largely couldn’t run the ball. As it was, Allen was their leading rusher with 39 yards. The Patriots, meanwhile, ran all day.

They’re built to win in December and January in the outdoors. Between their defense and ability to run, they’re going to be a tough out especially against teams like the Bills, whose defense is built more to stop teams with elite passing games, such as the Chiefs.

Having a lighter, quicker front may be good against Patrick Mahomes & Co. but not against mashers and maulers like the Patriots.

The Bills knew the Patriots were going to run, loading the box with seven and eight guys, and they still ran, and did so effectively. At one point, McDaniels called 32 straight running plays.

Damien Harris gained over 100 yards. Rhamondre Stevenson was just as huge, as the Patriots ran down the Bills’ collective throats for 222 yards.

The Patriots were effective running whether they were going into the wind, or had it at their backs.

This was old-school running as McDaniels made good use of traps with great blocking from the line up front, along with fullback Jakob Johnson and N’Keal Harry at times.

The Patriots had a lead, so there was no real need to put the ball up in Belichick’s mind and gamble.

But that plan also called for the defense to stop the less-conservative Bills, with Allen putting the ball up, largely because Buffalo trailed.

Unlike his offense, Belichick didn’t hold back with his defense, sending an all-out blitz against Allen with a fourth-and-14 from the Patriots 18-yard line with 2:00 to play to help preserve the lead, and the win.

Belichick played his cards right, and in the process, demoralized the Bills, and remain a team no one wants to play, especially outdoors in the elements.

Devin McCourty put it all in perspective, talking about finding ways to win, and doing whatever it takes to accomplish the goal.

“That’s why I love playing here. This team isn’t about one person, it isn’t about egos, it isn’t about this is what we do, so we’re going to do it  . . . it’s about winning,” said McCourty. “We’re going to adjust and find a way to win . . . I think everyone will look at this game and say, they played good defense. But we ran the ball, we broke out a long run when we needed to run the ball and take the clock down . . . this week our offense morphed into a team that was going to run the football and it worked.”

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Boston pension payouts at-a-glance

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Boston pension payouts at-a-glance

The city’s pension payouts list police and fire commanders atop the heap with a total of 470 retirees from various departments pulling down six figures annually. Here are the annual pensions at a glance:

Top 5:

$193,570 William Gross, former police commissioner

$185,416 John McDonough, ex-school superintendent

$181,979 Lisa Holmes, past BPD superintendent

$178,086 William Ridge, past BPD superintendent

$173,278 Joseph Finn, former fire commissioner

Oldest pensions:

1956, Joseph Vogel, firefighter hurt on job, $14,446

1959, Leroy Mahoney, firefighter injured, $20,158

1964, Robert Glynn, police officer injured, $20,083

1970, James Hardaway, firefighter hurt, $19,129

1974, Frank Murano, BFD injured on job, $24,835

Miscellaneous:

$111,126, top-earning retired teacher

$108,890, top fire scuba diver

$52,673 Ray Flynn, former mayor

$33,752, tree climber

$32,562, vehicle impound specialist

$21,216, telephone operator

Go to bostonherald.com for the database listing all 12,718 city retirees.

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Full Boston pension database: Your Tax Dollars at Work

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Full Boston pension database: Your Tax Dollars at Work

For the first time, here are the 12,700 City of Boston retirees listed by name, annual pension, date of retirement and last job.

To search on this database, click the magnifying glass icon (at right) and enter names and more. Use the scroll bar at bottom to move the data over to the right to sort by highest to lowest. Send any tips or questions to [email protected] See other payroll databases here. Follow the Watchdog newsletter for related coverage.

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