As Colorado lawmakers consider a ban on flavored tobacco, for many on both sides, the fight is personal. That’s true for Leanne Wheeler, a 54-year-old resident of Aurora and Air Force veteran.
“My earliest memory of my father is holding a cigarette. He started smoking Pall Malls and ultimately would smoke Lucky Strikes, filterless, menthol,” she said. Her family’s experience led her to this year’s fight at the legislature.
It also echoes a broader battle over flavored tobacco, which involves prominent figures in Colorado and its capital city, money, power and industry, as well as questions of health equity and government actions aimed at protecting public health.
Wheeler’s dad, Leon, had started smoking as a golf caddy at age 12.
“Every year on his birthday, March the first, he'd make a commitment to quit. ‘I'm gonna quit. I'm gonna quit on my birthday,’” she recalled.
Leon liked menthols, a type of flavored cigarette. Like other types of flavored products being debated at the legislature, they’ve been shown to be especially addictive.
His annual attempts to quit never succeeded. Every year, Leon would be smoking again when Leanne’s birthday arrived just a few weeks after his own. And by the time she was an adult, her dad was struggling with a variety of health problems — prostate cancer and COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease that makes it hard to breathe.
When he’d visit from out of state, they’d go golfing, with some other friends, and he’d hide how sick he was.
“I would later find out that my father was getting sick on the golf course and he would be coughing up blood,” she said.
It got worse and worse, until Leon was diagnosed with advanced stage 4 lung cancer. He died less than a year later.
“He absolutely suffered, he was in agony, up until the time he died,” Leanne said.
Around the time of her father’s diagnosis, Leanne Wheeler decided to make a change. She had been working on veterans’ issues for the Department of Defense, but Wheeler decided then to get involved in advocacy about tobacco, working as a paid consultant for a non-profit group called the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.
It wasn’t just about her dad — Leanne Wheeler is African American, and this affects her whole community. Tobacco companies have long targeted Black Americans, people like her father, particularly with advertising for menthol flavored cigarettes, like those brands he smoked — Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes.
“This is a public health issue. The racist part is the intentional targeting by the industry,” said Wheeler, who ran for an at-large city council seat in Aurora in 2019.
Listen to the Podcast: Purplish — The fight to ban Menthols and flavored vapes
Today, Wheeler is part of a multi-year campaign to get these products — and a lot of others like them — banned in Colorado. And this year they’re taking on their most ambitious fight yet: banning the products in state law.
“I'm doing it because I believe it's the right thing to do,” said Wheeler. “That's why I'm doing it.”
The bill, HB22-1064, prohibits retailers of cigarettes, tobacco or nicotine products from selling or marketing any flavored product. Those are defined as products “imparting a taste or smell other than the taste or smell of tobacco.”
Menthols are a key part of the ban, but the legislation also would cover newer products, like the fruit- and candy-flavored vape products that are attracting a new generation of users.
Though proponents say they are hopeful, the fate of the measure is still uncertain with just a few weeks left in this year’s session.
The fight in Denver
The current fight is at the statehouse, but the debate has its roots in local politics.
Denver was on the forefront of the movement to reign in youth tobacco use as vaping took off among teens. It passed Tobacco 21, a measure to raise the minimum legal age from 18 to 21 for sales of tobacco and nicotine, as a way to keep kids from using the products.
That was in 2019, before the state of Colorado took action the next year. After the city council approved the measure that fall — amid concerns about mystery e-cigarette related lung injuries being reported around the nation — Mayor Michael Hancock signed it.
At the time, CPR News asked Hancock his take on flavored tobacco products.
He said he was open to banning flavors, but hedged that maybe the state should take the lead on the products instead.
“I mean, doing it in Denver, I don't think is as wise to do it well versus doing it statewide,” Hancock said.
By 2021, city leaders were ready to take on the flavored tobacco issue. By this time, a half-dozen smaller towns — Aspen, Boulder, Carbondale, Edgewater, Glenwood Springs and Snowmass Village — had banned flavors.
But as the capital city, passing Denver’s proposal would make the biggest statement.
It was one of the year’s most hotly debated topics at city council meetings. Proponents had assembled a coalition of more than 100 organizations in favor of the measure. The group included the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the group for which Wheeler works.
Opponents too organized against the measure, pairing business interests with those arguing for personal choice.
Hearings featured frantic parents, health experts, anti-tobacco advocates on one side against worried vape shop and convenience store owners and employees and people who testified flavored vaping products had helped them quit traditional cigarettes.
And with opponents there was one big — and maybe surprising — voice: former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.
Webb is Denver's first Black mayor, and he’s a prominent voice in Denver and statewide politics and a mentor to a lot of Democrats, including the city’s top executive, its second Black mayor, Michael Hancock.
As the issue heated up last fall, on the eve of a critical vote in city council, the two sides held dueling press conferences, with Webb the most high-profile person on the steps of the building where he’d served three terms.
He described his concerns as being about equity. He said at the time the ban itself targets people of color, giving police a reason to stop a person who’s smoking to see if they’re smoking menthols.
Webb also is working as a paid consultant for R.J. Reynolds, he confirmed in an interview with CPR News. RJR is the nation's second largest tobacco company and owns the brands Camel, New Port, Doral and Pall Mall — the type of menthol cigarette Leanne Wheeler's father smoked.
After Webb left office, he established a consulting company, Webb Group International. Its website says the “boutique firm” has decades of “experience of working with and solving problems for city government, county government and state government, and a wide variety of clients.” On the site, the group shows or lists some of its clients: the National Education Association, McDonald’s, the American Beverage Institute, and the American Petroleum Institute. R.J. Reynolds is not listed.
In the recent interview with CPR, Webb said when it comes to the flavored tobacco issue, he’s in line with a libertarian view that the government should let people make their own decisions.
“When you're 21 years old, you should be able to pick and choose what you want to do. To me, that's the key issue. You're gonna ban sugar? That's a big issue in the Black community, as it relates to diabetes. Government can’t continue to overreact,” 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 doesn’t 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 have said before, when a person reaches age at 21, they should be able to make their own choices,” Webb said.
The majority of African Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, according to the CDC, often starting at a young age. Seven out of 10 African American youth ages 12-17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes. The CDC also says a higher percentage of Black adults who smoke started using menthol cigarettes (93 percent) than white adults who smoke (44 percent).
When it came to the city’s consideration of the flavored tobacco ban, “we don't lobby. I consult with advising clients in terms of how they should proceed,” Webb said.
But those on the other side, like Leanne Wheeler, who also works as a paid consultant, think the exact opposite. Her view is industry has targeted the community via marketing of flavors to the profound detriment of its health and the government's role should be to protect public health.
Other tobacco reformers also see menthol as just another vehicle for harm that was inflicted on Black communities. That’s the message you hear from activists like Brother Jeff Fard, a multimedia journalist, community organizer and founder of a cultural center in the city’s Five Points neighborhood, not far from Manual High, from which both Webb and Hancock graduated.
“How does this predatory industry continue to make billions off of menthol? And those are primarily communities of color, specifically black communities,” Fard said. “And now that you look at the research, it looks more like it's more marginalized communities that are constantly being targeted. In other words, those communities that are disposable in society.”
Hancock stops flavor 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 vape liquids, while exempting hookah, pipe tobacco and cigars.
The mayor said in a statement he shared some council members’ goal to reduce youth nicotine use in the city.
But Hancock said he’d prefer a statewide ban or even a metro-area ban on flavored tobacco products.
“We cannot appropriately address the public health impacts of youth tobacco use if that public health response occurs only in Denver,” Hancock wrote in the letter to city council members.
That didn’t sit well with some.
“I find it appalling,” Fard said of the veto. He criticized both the current and former mayor. “There's a whole Black Lives Matter movement that has taken place. You’ve got the reforms that have taken place following the death of George Floyd. And then you're going to tell me that I'm going to veto, or I'm going to use my political capital, my influence, to stand on the side of an industry that is responsible for more deaths annually of Black people than anything anyone has protested against since the founding of this country.”
Hancock, in an interview with CPR, said he spoke to people on both sides, including former mayor Webb, who he recently saluted at a recent unveiling of a statue of his predecessor. He declined to respond directly to critics but said it was difficult to be stuck in the middle.
“I don't get into that kind of conversation,” said Hancock, who is term-limited after three terms and can’t run again in next year’s election. “You know, there are people on both sides who felt very strongly about this issue, some who are dear friends who shared with me that they wanted me to sign the bill. And there are some dear friends on both sides of this issue.”
Hancock added it wasn’t good policy to tell Denver’s retailers they couldn’t sell products consumers could easily buy by crossing into a neighboring city.
“I made the decision based on the facts and the fact that if we really did want to do something, let's go to the state and let's do something,” he said.
A few days after Hancock vetoed the flavored tobacco measure, the city council failed to override the veto on an 8-4 vote.
The mayor says it’s a statewide issue, the governor says it's local
But there seems to be little appetite, from the state’s top executive, 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 — like cities do with marijuana or alcohol.
“I'm against statewide prohibition of alcohol or marijuana or tobacco, but if a community doesn't want to have a dispensary or doesn't want to have vape, that is completely their prerogative,” he said. “I signed a bill that gave that explicit authority to local communities around vaping.”
When asked about Hancock’s comments that any flavor ban should be a state responsibility, Polis said, “We signed a law that specifically left it up to local governments. Most mayors support local control, of course that's a big part of what they want to do. So obviously if the mayor wants to impact state policy he can run for state legislature.”
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