Colorado Democrats once again kill bill to regulate flavored tobacco

Flavored tobacco for sale at a Sheridan Boulevard gas station. Oct. 27, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Flavored tobacco for sale at a Sheridan Boulevard gas station. Oct. 27, 2021.

For the second time in the last three sessions, a bill to regulate flavored tobacco failed in the state’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

The proposal would have allowed a board of county commissioners to ban flavored tobacco and nicotine products.

The House Business Affairs & Labor Committee defeated it on a 6-5 vote on Thursday afternoon.

Several lawmakers on the committee voting against cited concerns about impacts the legislation might have on local businesses, echoing testimony from several vape shop owners who said it would have hurt sales if a county banned flavored tobacco. 

“We have a long history of choosing to listen to the tobacco lobby,” said bill sponsor Rep. Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs, as she appealed to her colleagues before the vote. “I hope that today we can really think about the children and make sure that we do the right thing to make sure that our children don't have access to these products that have been targeted for them.”

The measure already passed a Senate committee and the full Senate.

As has been seen in prior years, the bill drew intense lobbying, with 141 lobbyists, from both sides, signing up to voice support, opposition, or neutrality, according to the state’s lobbyist disclosure website. 

Tobacco giants like PMI, RJ Reynolds America, and Altria, represented by lobbying powerhouse Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, and the Vapor Technology Association hired lobbyists in opposition to the legislation.

Anti-tobacco heavy hitters, like Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and health groups like the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians, Colorado Hospital Association, and Kaiser Permanente likewise hired lobbyists in support.

In 2022, a bill to ban flavored tobacco statewide failed, after Gov. Jared Polis said the issue should be handled at the local level. 

This time, backers of the bill hoped focusing on a locally focused measure would have better chances of passage. Cities already have authority to regulate flavored tobacco, but county officials testified they’re unclear about whether they have similar power and were seeking guidance from state lawmakers.

The governor had not publicly said where he stood on this year’s bill. When asked his position on this bill, a spokesperson for the governor didn’t respond Thursday before the vote.

During the legislative session two years ago, Polis told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner he opposed a flavor ban statewide, saying it should be up to local officials. 

“Philosophically … I support local control on a wide variety of issues,” the governor said.

Data from Colorado’s health department show adult vaping rates are rising in the state, driven by a sharp increase among young, college-age adults, those 18 to 24. 

Colorado was the No. 1 state for youth vaping a few years ago, but those numbers have fallen in recent years. Public health advocates say reforms, like raising the legal age to purchase to 21, have helped bring youth rates down.

As in 2022, this year’s proposal drew heavy lobbying from both sides, with tobacco and business interests opposed and public health and children’s advocacy groups in support.

Democratic Rep. Regina English from El Paso County voted against it. 

“I don't think we should essentially penalize adults because we want to keep something away from our children,” she said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Reps. Naquetta Ricks, left, and Regina English, at the Capitol, March 2, 2023.

Rep. Naquetta Ricks, a Democrat from Aurora, noted in her area that many shops could be affected. She said the bill “would stop a bunch of small businesses, the vape shops that do sell to adults, the hookah shop."

Committee chair Judy Amabile said it was important for public health to give counties the authority to regulate flavored tobacco, which cities have.

“That is our job as adults, is to protect kids,” said Amabile, who said she’s a parent of three smokers, who started early and have kept doing it and switched to vapes because they thought that would be healthier.

She noted the bill wouldn’t prevent young people from trying to get flavored tobacco products, which have helped drive up vaping rates among young adults in Colorado. 

“We should try to make it as hard as we can to keep these products from them,” she said.

“It is unfortunate that this bill failed today,” said R. J. Ours, government relations director with the American Cancer Society American Cancer Network. He noted it likely meant counties wanting to be proactive in youth tobacco prevention on this front would have to wait at least another year before they’d have a chance at winning that authority. 

“How sad that some simple clarity wasn't added to a law that was enacted in 2020,” he said.