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As public officials nationwide warn of a teen vaping crisis, Denver might raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Wednesday, a Denver City Council committee advanced to the full council a proposal that would bar retailers from selling tobacco and other nicotine products to people under age 21 and would require those stores to have new licenses in order to keep selling the goods.

The measure covers all products containing nicotine, as well as “any electronic device that may be used to deliver nicotine to the person inhaling from the device.”

Tobacco use “remains the single-largest preventable cause of death and disease in Colorado,” said R.J. Ours, the Colorado government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. 

“If that weren’t bad enough, over the past decade, a new product has rapidly emerged — the electronic smoking device, or e-cigarette — posing a clear and present health hazard to our young people and the community at large,” Ours told the council’s Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness committee. “It’s time to take charge and reverse this alarming trend.”

As of last month, 18 states and Washington, D.C., had banned sales of tobacco products to people under age 21, reports the national nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

About a half-dozen Colorado municipalities have adopted similar policies, as have at least 480 cities and towns nationwide, the nonprofit reports.

On Aug. 28, the Boulder City Council approved the age requirement of 21 and made final plans to ban the sale of flavored vaporized products, the Boulder Daily Camera reported. Boulder voters will be asked this fall to approve a 40% sales tax on tobacco-flavored nicotine juice — the only vaping product that would still be legal, the Camera report said.

If the Denver council passes its ordinance, the new age requirement would take effect immediately, but retailers wouldn't be formally cited for violations until more than three months later. Businesses would have to have the new licenses by Jan. 1, 2021.

The new license program would help Denver identify its tobacco retailers and improve enforcement, said Tristan Sanders, a program manager with the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment. 

The city reached out to its nearly 600 known tobacco retailers over the past few months to gather input on the proposed changes, Sanders said.

Under current rules, selling tobacco to minors is punishable by fines of $250 to $999, depending on prior violations. If a business has a second violation within a year, its right to sell the products can be suspended for 30 days. Four or more violations can result in a year-long suspension on sales.

Those penalties would remain the same under the proposed law. But retailers would have to be at least 500 feet from any other tobacco sellers and 1,000 feet from schools, child-care facilities and city-owned recreation centers or pools.

Existing stores could be exempted from those restrictions if they apply for a license by July 1, Sanders said.  “We don’t want to put anybody out of business by passing this law.”

Each retailer would have to pay a one-time, $250 application fee and a $500 annual licensing fee. 

About 23% of Denver high school students are using tobacco products, says the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

About 85% of those students perceive smoking tobacco products as risky, but only 45% said they think vaping is risky, according to the survey.

Yet vaporized products still contain highly addictive nicotine as well as other ingredients that often are unidentified.

Denver Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval echoed concerns about teenage nicotine use. During her daughter's three years at North High School, vaping has “taken over,” she said.

“I’ve personally asked my daughter and her friend how easy is it to get tobacco products, especially Juul. And it’s easy,” Sandoval said.

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