A previous version of this story included incorrect information on the cutoff date of the online survey. The survey will be available through Wednesday, Dec. 14.
At a lengthy, but courteous public hearing that filled the boardroom and drew participants online, Multnomah County Board of Commissioners gathered feedback about a proposed ordinance to end the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine in the county.
The Board is expected to hear the first reading of the ordinance on Thursday, Dec. 1. The action comes after an August briefing on tobacco-related premature death and disease in Multnomah County, Chair Deborah Kafoury directed the County Health Department to develop a policy proposal to reduce youth access to flavored tobacco and nicotine products in order to curb their health and mortality impacts. The Health Department returned in October with a recommendation to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine.
More than 80 people signed up to share their thoughts at the Monday night meeting, with lively testimony included physicians, owners of local tobacco retail license holders, representatives of community-based organizations and trade groups, college students and other county residents.
Many who spoke in support of the ordinance shared their concern about the ongoing targeting of young people that has contributed to creating the next generation of tobacco users, the long-standing disparities related to nicotine and tobacco use for African American and LGBTQ+ communities (also achieved, in part, by targeted marketing), and the overall detrimental health effects that users of tobacco and nicotine experience.
Mary Stevens-Krough, with the Portland Public Schools student success and health department, spoke about the impact that students’ use of flavored tobacco products are having on schools and educators.
“From a serious annoyance and distraction, it has turned into a public health crisis that has spilled down to our middle school, forcing principals to remove doors from bathroom stalls to reduce opportunities for in-school use,” said Stevens-Krough about the use of e-cigarettes and vapes in high schools.
Those who were opposed to the ban cited the potential of harm to local businesses that carry these products or rely on their sales. Others warned of the strain that people selling products illegally would put on already-overwhelmed law enforcement.
Maher Makboul, a Multnomah County store owner, described how worried he is about the ban and the financial impact it will have on his business.
“We are already battling and trying to survive the COVID pandemic, taxes and more licensing fees,” said Makboul.
Tobacco work in Multnomah County
Led by Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, the Board and Health Department have worked continuously to address the health risks that tobacco and nicotine use pose to Multnomah County residents.
In 2014, then-Deputy Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines alerted the Board about the use and access to tobacco and e-cigarettes in Multnomah County. At that time, the Health Department reported that a 2012 survey of 1,700 youths in 17 Multnomah County high schools found that one in 15 teens reported they were daily users of cigarettes, and one in every 25 used e-cigarettes.
In 2015, Multnomah County passed an ordinance that prohibited minors from buying and using inhalant delivery systems like e-cigarettes, vape pens and e-hookahs, among others, and restricted their use in any indoor area that is smoke-free under the Oregon Indoor Clean Air Act.
Several months later, the Board of Commissioners approved the licensing of businesses that sell tobacco and vaping products in an attempt to reduce illegal sales at a time when Multnomah County had some of the highest rates of illegal sales to minors, according to state and federal regulators.
Following the Health Department’s request to the Board in 2017 to raise the legal age to buy products if the state did not act, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill into law that made 21 the minimum age to purchase cigarettes.
Young people and physicians are among those in support of the ban
Dr. Cynthia McPhee, who has been a pediatrician for 21 years, spoke in support of the ban and said she was certain of the increase in the number of kids who are vaping or using flavored tobacco products.
“I’m seeing 12, 13 and 14-year olds, as well as older teens, who are saying that they are either using flavored tobacco products or they have friends who are using,” she said.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death, killing an estimated 8,000 Oregonians in 2020.
Avery Dukes, a community member, spoke about her personal experience and the importance of approving the ban because tobacco companies target the Black community disproportionately.
“Getting Black folks hooked on substances has been a strategy for economic growth by the white community for generations,” Dukes said. “And you have the power to end this pattern in Multnomah County.”
“As a young person born and raised here, I am begging you to please support this ordinance,” began Sophia Kogan, who detailed her experience with e-cigarettes in high school and college.
Kogan described flavored tobacco products as being in every car during lunch in high school and being just as prevalent in college. “My peers often held up their binders or laptops to hide their e-cigarettes because they swore they needed it to get through the day.”
Vape shops and small businesses are in opposition to the ban
Emily Soles, representing the Oregon Small Business Association and the Oregon Vape Trade Association, shared her disapproval of the proposed ban, saying that it would end up “driving sales to other counties and taking toys away from legal adult consumers.”
“The problem isn’t flavors,” she continued. “The problem is weak enforcement.”
Vice-president of the Korean American Grocers Association of Oregon, Chris Kim, said the ban would affect over 180 members of his group who own and operate businesses across the county.
“Many of our member stores will be forced to close their doors,” said Kim. “Instead, work with Oregon and Multnomah County retailers, who are the first line of defense in preventing kids from purchasing flavored tobacco products.”
Hookah lounge owner Dawood Zainel said the proposed ban on flavored tobacco and nicotine products, including hookah, was wrong.
“Hookahs are traditional and have been around for hundreds of years, and there's a lot of people in our community who enjoy coming to the hookah lounge, and that's their culture.”
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will return to hear the first reading of this proposed ordinance during the regular board meeting on Thursday, Dec. 1. The second reading is currently scheduled for the regular board meeting on Thursday, Dec. 15. If passed, the ordinance would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
A survey on the proposed ordinance remains open through Wednesday, Dec. 14.