The cigarette and vaping display at a convenience store in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado prides itself on being a state of health-conscious outdoor enthusiasts with low obesity rates and access to quality medical care. Our largest city, Denver, is consistently ranked in the top 10 healthiest cities in the United States

But looming behind that facade is a deadly secret: Nearly one out of five Denver youth are currently using e-cigarettes, according to the latest Healthy Kids Colorado survey.

Youth e-cigarette use has reached epidemic levels in the past few years. Parents, teachers, doctors, health-care professionals and health advocacy groups are facing an uphill battle when it comes to curbing the youth vaping epidemic. 

Margaret Ferguson, Raymond Estacio, Jodi Radke

Today’s products are easy to obtain, leave no discernible odor, and can be effortlessly concealed — making it difficult for adults to detect and intervene.

The tobacco industry has an ever-increasing stranglehold on our young people, luring and addicting them with flavored tobacco products that taste like anything but tobacco. More than 15,500 unique e-cigarette flavors are available to kids, from cotton candy to mango, and packaged to look like their innocuous candy counterparts. But underneath the packaging lies an addictive, deadly substance that is creating a generation of nicotine addicts. 

Tobacco companies target kids with million-dollar marketing campaigns and appealing flavors that hook kids, while the continuation of the sale of menthol cigarettes perpetuates decades-long targeting of minorities, prolonging health disparities among Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ+ communities. In fact, eight out of 10 youth who have used tobacco started with a flavored product and about half of youth smokers use menthol cigarettes.

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That’s why we’re calling on the city of Denver to take bold leadership in enacting a city-wide ordinance to end the sale of all flavored tobacco products. In a survey commissioned by our organizations, 65% of respondents support ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products in Denver, which includes fruit and candy-flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine vaping products, menthol-flavored cigarettes and flavored cigars. 

Majority support for the ordinance is seen across all demographic groups, including political parties, ethnicities — and in every district of the city.

We’ve seen more and more cities and states across the country take action to end the sale of flavored tobacco products, and as the largest city in Colorado, it’s time for Denver to prioritize the health of our kids over tobacco industry profits. 

While age restrictions have helped, these products are still accessible to kids. As long as these products remain available on the market, kids will get their hands on them. The only real solution is to end the sale of all flavored tobacco products — all flavors, all products, all locations — and it’s clear Denver voters agree.

Upon hearing statements about flavored tobacco products, an overwhelming majority of Denver voters expressed concern that e-cigarettes expose kids to high levels of nicotine (86% concerned). Voters were also concerned that flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes are popular among Black youth (82%); tobacco and vaping companies target kids with flavored products (81%); and that flavored tobacco is a starter product (80%).

Flavored tobacco products pose serious risks to the health of young people. These dangerous products addict children early and for a lifetime. 

According to the surgeon general, nicotine can harm adolescent brain development, which continues until about age 25. Nicotine can affect learning, attention and memory, and can also prime the brain for addiction to other drugs. 

Reducing access to these products is critical to preventing addiction into adulthood, disease burden, and premature death.

Amid a respiratory disease pandemic and the tobacco industry’s continued targeting of groups who have historically been marginalized, tobacco control and prevention are more important than ever. 

Denver led on tobacco retail licensing and raising the minimum sales age to 21, and we call on the city to once again lead by ending the sale of flavored tobacco products once and for all, to best protect our kids and our future.

Dr. Margaret Ferguson is president and executive medical director of the Colorado Permanente Medical Group, which provides care to the more than 600,000 members of Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. Dr. Raymond Estacio is board president of The American Heart Association’s Denver Division. Jodi Radke is advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ Rocky Mountain/Great Plains Region.

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