Multnomah County Commissioners to Hold Hearing on Stopping Sales of Flavored Tobacco

A similar ban was struck down by a judge in Washington County, foreshadowing a legal fight.

Mr. Hookah. (Michael Raines)

The Multnomah Board of County Commissioners plans to hold a hearing this month on whether to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, a move that faces a new legal hurdle after a judge threw out a similar ban in neighboring Washington County.

The hearing, to be held at 5:30 pm on Nov. 28, comes after the county’s Public Health Division last month recommended the move in order to curb tobacco use by minors. Members of the public are invited to testify.

Flavors Hook Oregon Kids, an organization that advocates the ban, applauded the move. “For too long, the tobacco industry has targeted our youth, especially kids of color, with flavored tobacco products, all to hook new customers,” the group said.

In addition to halting sales of flavored tobacco in stores, a ban would also stop such sales at Portland’s hookah lounges, where customers—many of them from North Africa and and the Middle East—smoke flavored tobacco in water pipes.

Washington County commissioners voted to ban flavored nicotine products in late 2021, a first for Oregon counties. In response, Plaid Pantry CEO Jonathan Polonsky gathered enough signatures to put a repeal of the ban on the ballot. Voters rejected the measure, 77% to 23%, leaving the ban in place.

A group of tobacco sellers, including owners of a vape shop and a hookah lounge, challenged the measure in court. In September, Washington County Circuit Judge Andrew Erwin struck down the ban, saying it could only be enacted by the state.

“I neither smoke nor use tobacco products and recognize the great personal health hazards that attach to the ingestion of tobacco-related products,” Erwin wrote. “But the decision to disallow licensed retail sale of such products must come from the state, not county by county.”

Washington County has filed notice that it plans to appeal Erwin’s ruling.

A 2022 survey showed that 68% of Multnomah County residents support ending flavored tobacco sales, Flavors Hook Oregon Kids said. Eighty-one percent of kids who have used tobacco started with a flavored product, they said. Menthol cigarettes have been pushed on Black communities for decades, and now 85% of Black smokers choose menthols.

“This has been a long journey with the fight against tobacco,” Multnomah County public health director Jessica Guernsey said last month. “And we absolutely know that there have been racist practices in Black, Hispanic, Latinx and the Native community for decades around the marketing, sale and the positioning of products in the community.”

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