The Denver flavor ban fight pitted the personal against the political and brought state legislatures into a high-level debate
In the recent interview with CPR, Webb said that when it came to the issue of flavored tobacco, he took a libertarian view that government should let the people make their own decisions.
“When you’re 21, you should be able to choose what you want to do. For me that is the key question. are you going to ban sugar This is a big issue in the black community as it is about diabetes. The government can’t keep overreacting,” said Webb, 81. “And you can’t have a policy that says, ‘You can’t smoke a menthol cigarette, but you can smoke all the dope you want.’ That does not make sense.'”
Webb said he doesn’t support young people vaping, but maintains that it’s up to adults to decide whether to use tobacco.
“I’ve already said that by the time a person turns 21, they should be able to make their own decisions,” Webb said.
The majority of African Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, often from a young age, according to the CDC. Seven out of ten African American youth ages 12 to 17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes. The CDC also says that a higher percentage of black adults who smoke started with menthol cigarettes (93 percent) than white adults who smoke (44 percent).
When it came to the city’s deliberations on banning flavored tobacco, “we’re not lobbying. I consult with advising clients on how to proceed,” Webb said.
But those on the other side, like Leanne Wheeler, who also works as a paid consultant, think the exact opposite. In their view, the industry has targeted the community by marketing flavors to the serious detriment of their health and the government’s role should be to protect public health.
Other tobacco reformers also see menthol as just another vehicle for harm done to black communities. That’s the message you’ll hear from activists like Brother Jeff Fard, a multimedia journalist, community organizer and founder of a cultural center in the Five Points neighborhood, not far from Manual High where both Webb and Hancock graduated.
“How does this predatory industry keep making billions off menthol? And that’s primarily communities of color, especially black communities,” Fard said. “And now, if you look at the research, it seems like more marginalized communities are being targeted all the time. In other words, those communities that are available in society.”
Hancock stops taste ban with his second veto as mayor
In December, the Denver City Council voted 8-3 to approve the flavor ban, which included flavored cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes while excluding hookahs, pipe tobacco and cigars.
A few days later, Hancock vetoed it – only his second veto as mayor. (The first was a measure to lift the city’s pit bull ban.)
The mayor said in a statement he shares the goal of some council members to reduce nicotine use by youth in the city.
But Hancock said he would prefer a statewide ban or even a metropolitan ban on flavored tobacco products.
“We cannot adequately address the public health impact of youth tobacco use if this public health response occurs only in Denver,” Hancock wrote in the letter to city council members.
That didn’t go down well with some.
“I think it’s appalling,” Fard said of the veto. He criticized both the current and former mayor. “There has been a whole Black Lives Matter movement. You have the reforms that took place after the death of George Floyd. And then you’re going to tell me I’m going to veto it, or I’m going to use my political capital, my influence, to side with an industry that’s responsible for more black deaths each year than anything anyone’s been against protested the founding of this country.”
Hancock, in an interview with CPR, said he’s spoken to people on both sides, including former Mayor Webb, whom he greeted at a recent unveiling of a statue of his predecessor. He declined to respond directly to critics but said it was difficult to get stuck in the middle.
“I don’t get into those kinds of talks,” said Hancock, who is serving a three-term term and will not be able to run in next year’s election. “You know, there are people on both sides who care deeply about this issue, some who are good friends who have let me know that they wanted me to sign the law. And there are some dear friends on both sides of this issue.”
Hancock added it wasn’t good policy to tell Denver retailers they couldn’t sell products that consumers could easily buy if they drove to a neighboring city.
“I made the decision based on the facts and the fact that if we really wanted to do something, we should go to the state and do something,” he said.
A few days after Hancock vetoed the flavored tobacco measure, the city council failed to overturn the veto by a vote of 8 to 4.
The mayor says it’s a statewide issue, the governor says it’s local
But there appears to be little appetite from the state’s top leadership to tackle flavored tobacco statewide.
In an interview this week on CPR’s Colorado Matters, Gov. Jared Polis said that this type of ban should be left to local control — just like cities do with marijuana or alcohol.
“I’m against a statewide ban on alcohol, marijuana or tobacco, but if a community doesn’t want a dispensary or a vape, that’s entirely their prerogative,” he said. “I signed legislation that gave local communities this explicit authority to vape.”
Asked about Hancock’s comments that any taste ban should be a government responsibility, Polis said: “We signed legislation that expressly leaves it up to local governments. Most mayors support local control, of course that’s a big part of what they want to do. So if the mayor wants to influence state politics, he can of course run for state parliament.”