DC councilmembers mull amendment to flavored tobacco ban

Outrage from the community has councilmembers now looking to amend a proposed D.C. flavored tobacco ban. The bill, called the "Flavored Tobacco Product Prohibition Amendment Act of 2021," was slated for its first reading on Tuesday.

Online, Southeast D.C. 7B01 ANC Commissioner Chioma Iwuoha called the bill, "racist."

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"Flavored tobacco also includes Hookah. And a lot of Black business, especially along the U Street Corridor, rely on the sale of Hookah in order for their businesses to thrive. We just came out of COVID. They have been financially struggling and it really a quintessential part of Black nightlife," Iwuoha told FOX 5 over Zoom.

Several D.C. business owners told FOX 5 they would be hit hard if the bill were to pass as is. The "Flavored Tobacco Product Prohibition Amendment Act of 2021" would do three things:

- prohibit the sale of tobacco to minors under 16-years-old

- ban electronic smoking devices within one quarter mile of a middle or high school

- prohibit the sale and distribution of flavored tobacco products

Page 2 of the legislation defines a flavored tobacco product as: "any tobacco product or synthetic nicotine product that imparts a characterizing flavor." E-cigarettes or "vapes" are included. The flavors to be band include fruit, candy, chocolate and menthol. It’s part of that fight to stop youth nicotine and smoking addictions.

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Violators could face a $25 fine a-person. Up to $10,000 for a business and the business license could also be taken away. In a Tuesday D.C. Council meeting, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Councilmember Charles Allen said it was important to note that the bill does not ban use or possession.

"Over 80% of kids who use cigarettes use flavored e-cigarettes. There’s been this meteoric rise that threatens to undo all the products we’ve made in reducing youth tobacco use. And the part of the bill that deals with menthol cigarettes. Menthol cigarettes are the number one causes on the health disparities on lung cancer, heart disease and other disease in our city," said Matthew Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The council’s newer Office of Racial Equality reviewed the bill and found that while the bill "has the potential to advance racial equity by improving health outcomes, enforcement of the bill has the potential to exacerbate racial inequity in economic and social justice outcomes." The review looks at the impact on businesses within communities of color, where tobacco use is more prevalent. It also looks at the fines that could disproportionately impact those communities and enforcement, which the study noted could lead to more interactions with police if officers are charged with enforcing the ban.  

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The equity study did note DCRA would likely be the overseeing agency.

Part of the review noted White DC high school students are more likely than any other ethnic group to have vaped within the past 30 days – Black students are the least. However, Black adults are the most likely to use tobacco product. "In 2017, about 1 in 5 Black District residents identified as a current smoker, compared to about 1 in 20 white residents," the equity review said.

FOX 5 confirmed Councilwoman Christina Henderson was circulating an amendment that would exempt some Hookah businesses that did have support from members. Henderson is one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

"I share similar concerns to the Council Office of Racial Equality that this bill would adversely impact minority-owned businesses, would level fines that disproportionately impact residents of color and could increase interactions between Black residents and law enforcement. I am working with my colleagues on language to address these concerns," said Councilman Kenyon McDuffie, one of the lawmakers who has held off on co-sponsoring the bill.

Former President Trump moved to crack down on fruit and mint flavors but ended up scaling back -- so tobacco and menthol flavors left out of the ban. In April we learned the Biden Administration had plans to ban menthol cigarettes. A spokesperson with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free kids confirmed the FDA now has within a year to work-out those rules.

If the DC bill passes – Violators could face a $25 fine if it’s a person. Up to $10,000 if it’s a business and the business license could also be taken away. A financial impact study also said the city would lose around $3 million in revenue Fiscal year 2022.

Read more about e-cigarette use among young people.