Multnomah County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine in an effort to curb youth smoking and prevent young people from getting addicted to nicotine.
“This is going to save peoples’ lives,” said County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “There will be teenagers today who do not start smoking or vaping today and then become lifelong addicts.”
The ban, which goes into effect in 2024, blocks flavored tobacco and nicotine products—including menthol-flavored products—from being sold by convenience stores, liquor stores, vape shops, and hookah lounges. Oregon residents cannot circumvent flavor bans by buying products online because of a 2022 state law that prohibits the sale and delivery of any cigarettes, vape devices, e-cigarettes, or smokeless tobacco online.
The county plans to enforce the ban by inspecting tobacco retailers annually to ensure they are not selling flavored products. Violators will be offered a remediation plan and a follow-up inspection. Retailers who are still in violation of the ban on second inspection will be penalized with a fine. Individuals cannot be punished for buying prohibited products.
Notably, the county declined to make an exception for hookah lounges in the ban. All hookah products use flavored tobacco, meaning that the three hookah lounges in Multnomah County will no longer be able to conduct their primary business and likely have to close when the ban goes into effect.
“I have never seen [youth] with shisha or hookah related products […] nor have I known them to seek it out,” Lionel Clay, a hookah lounge owner, told the board Thursday. “Even if they try—just like bars or dispensaries—we card everyone, which would prevent them from obtaining our products.”
Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who attempted to introduce an exception in the ban for hookah, said that the hookah lounges who will likely have to close due to the ban are “collateral damage” in an otherwise well-crafted policy.
The ban was supported by every major health system in Portland, Portland Public Schools, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and several local community health organizations. During extensive public comment over recent months, supporters noted national data that underscored how flavored nicotine and tobacco products—which often mimic candy flavors—are widely used by youth smokers. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14 percent of high school students and 3.3 percent of middle school students in the nation reported using e-cigarettes in 2022. Approximately 80 percent of youth smokers who use e-cigarettes in the US report using flavored e-cigarettes.
Opponents of the ban included tobacco lobbyists, retailers, and hookah lounge owners—many of whom urged the county to focus more on enforcement and cracking down on retailers who don’t card customers instead of banning products favored by underage smokers. The county does enforce age-check requirements through an education-first approach before fining retailers who repeatedly fail regulatory tests, which can escalate to revoking a retailer’s license. In 2018, the Oregon Health Authority found that 18 percent of minors who attempted to buy tobacco products through state regulatory tests were successful.
“For those of us who have teenagers or young people in our lives, they will come home and tell us how rampant usage is and how easily accessible it is,” said Stegmann. “I do believe youth have access to these products and the reality is that somebody is selling it to them.”
Richard Burke of the 21+ Tobacco and Retail Vape Association—a group of 22 Oregon retail tobacco and vaping stores—told the Multnomah County board in November that the group would sue the county if the ban passed. 21+ Tobacco and Retail Vape Association is currently suing Washington County over its ban on flavored tobacco and nicotine products passed in 2021.
Multnomah County leaders have acknowledge the legal battle in Washington County, but note that they are following in the footsteps of several other counties, cities, and jurisdictions nationwide, more than 300 of which have passed similar restrictions.
“We know that this isn’t the final point because this will be going into effect and there is a lot of work in front of us,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Peterson, who will take over as Multnomah County Chair in 2023.