For the 416 tobacco retailers in Denver, time might be running out.
On Monday, the Denver City Council approved a bill to ban the sale of most flavored tobacco products in the city beginning on July 1, 2023.
If Mayor Michael Hancock signs off on the ban, flavored menthol cigarettes, chewing tobacco and vaping products cannot be sold in any establishments in Denver, with exemptions for Hookah, natural cigars, pipe tobacco and harm-reduction tools.
Many owners of independent vape and tobacco stores in Denver said the ban will likely mean their business will die. Phil Guerin, owner of Myxed Up Creations on East Colfax Avenue and Ivy Street, said he expects to lose at least 30% of his store’s business when the ban goes into effect.
“It’s like having an execution date,” Guerin said. “It’s taken me 29 years to build my business and the City Council, with one bad decision, can destroy all of that. All of my dreams, all of my hard work, everything.”
Guerin called the ban “short sighted,” saying he has helped thousands of adults stop smoking cigarettes by transitioning to flavored vaping products. The ban will unfairly impact these adult users who rely on electronic cigarettes, he said.
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, who co-sponsored the ban, said its goal is to reduce youth vaping. However, Guerin said the ban will push teenagers into buying products on the black market and that it is up to parents to educate their children about the dangers of tobacco, like he has done with his 11-year-old daughter.
“I don’t need the government raising my child, I can do that. It should really be parents that have that under control,” Guerin said. “The reason kids are doing it is because it’s condoned at home and it’s condoned at schools. … Villainizing businesspeople is shameful. We are not the problem.”
In 2020, roughly 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students used e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of tobacco users between 12 and 17 years old, 81% said they started by using flavored products and 79% said they use a product because it comes in flavors they like, according to a study by the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health.
While Guerin hopes his business will be able to scrape by on non-flavored sales, the owner of Denver Vapes Pipes and Tobacco Store on South Federal Boulevard and West Tennessee Avenue is less optimistic.
“This will close my business down and I will have to file for bankruptcy,” said the store’s owner, who asked The Denver Gazette not to use their name. “I will lose my house, car and I will have less food on the table for my kids. We have been emailing and educating the City Council members about how vaping is a better option than cigs, but no one is willing to listen to us.”
The owner said the ban will eliminate 80% of sales at the store, making it impossible for them to continue business. The store has operated in Denver for over six years.
“We always worked by the rules,” the owner said. “When they implemented the 21 and up law, we immediately started doing that.”
They and Guerin are far from alone in their concerns. Joe Mccloskey, a consultant for 21 small vape shops in Denver, said 96% of his clients' sales come from flavored vaping products. In addition, the average age of his clients’ customers is 42 and one-third of their customers use no nicotine in their vapes.
Mary Szarmach, owner of Smoker Friendly with six locations in Denver, said her stores will have to pull over 1,000 products off the shelves when the ban goes into effect. When Glenwood Springs passed a similar ban, she said her store there lost 72% of its sales and she had to lay off four of her six employees.
The ban will also impact businesses outside of specialty tobacco stores, said Brian Fojtik, a Denver resident and representative of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets.
“This will devastate hundreds (of) mom-and-pop gas stations and convenience stores throughout Denver that are already suffering because of COVID,” Fojtik said. “They're experiencing reduced fuel sales and reduced in-store sales and rely on sales of these products for adults for about 35% of in-store sales. It will result in stores closing and it will result in lost jobs.”
When the City Council discussed the ban, many council members argued that Denver would be better off addressing youth tobacco use by cracking down on the licenses and regulations of tobacco retailers by increasing penalties for selling to people under 21 or by only allowing tobacco products to be sold in specialty age-restricted stores.
Guerin still believes the city could take this route, saying he hopes Hancock will veto the ban in the coming days. And if not, Guerin will use the next 19 months to push back against the ban.
“This is going to end up being a campaign issue,” Guerin said. “They want to find somebody to blame this on. They want to find a scapegoat. … But I’m fighting it until the end.”