HELENA – Helena city leaders are considering new restrictions to keep tobacco – especially flavored tobacco products – away from children.
“There was a group of advocates that thought it would be good public policy for the city of Helena to reduce minors’ access to tobacco products,” said Dennis Taylor, Helena’s city manager.
The Helena City Commission will hold a hearing this month on a proposed ordinance that would prohibit stores from selling flavored tobacco products unless they are open only to people 18 and older. It would also ban “self-service displays,” where customers can reach tobacco without help from the retailer.
Last week, the City-County Board of Health unanimously endorsed the draft ordinance.
Sarah Sandau, a tobacco prevention health officer with Lewis and Clark Public Health, said it would be a good step to discourage underage tobacco use.
“Nine out of ten tobacco users start before the age of 18,” she said. “We know that the youth brain is still developing, and how nicotine affects the youth’s developing brain makes us very worried about the usage rate.”
Health advocates have long raised concerns that added flavors are making tobacco too attractive to kids and teens.
“Flavors make it easier for youth to start using tobacco products, because bubble gum seems a lot more appealing than a normal cigarette,” said Sandau.
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Ream, who sits on the Board of Health, said most of the tobacco products schools confiscate from students are flavored.
The city commission will consider the tobacco ordinance at their meeting on Oct. 15. Taylor said he expects there will be some discussion on whether the ordinance should be applied to vaping products as well as tobacco.
If commissioners move forward with the proposal, they could give it final approval two weeks after that.
“First they have to address the idea: is it a good idea for the city to regulate access to flavored tobacco products?” said Taylor. “Then secondly: is this the format that they choose to be the most effective?”
The commission has also considered an ordinance that would prohibit smoking within 30 feet of any building that is open to the public. However, leaders decided to put that proposal off until November, to give business owners a chance to propose alternatives.
“There’s still time for the stakeholders to sort through, in some collaborative process, an alternative way to push the smoking farther away from buildings, but in a way that would be easier to regulate and manage and get compliance from citizens,” Taylor said.