Multnomah County Will Consider Banning Flavored Tobacco Despite Legal Questions

A judge earlier struck down a Washington County ban. Multnomah County says that’s irrelevant.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will hold a hearing Nov. 28 whether to ban the sale of flavored tobacco.

In an October hearing, the county’s public health director, Jessica Guernsey, testified about the prevalence of youth use of flavored tobacco in hookahs and other delivery mechanisms.

“What we do know about the use of hookahs is that one cigarette equals about 600 milliliters of smoke while an hour of hookah use equals about 90,000 milliliters of smoke,” Guernsey said. “We all have this shared concern: disallowing the sale of flavored tobacco will help us fend off the next generation of smokers and help create nicotine-free future generations.”

It is already illegal to sell tobacco to Oregonians under the age of 21, but Guernsey noted that surveys show “more than 1 in 4 12th graders in Oregon report vaping in the last 30 days,” and that there is “massive confusion” about the harms of flavored tobacco.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who’d previously asked health officials to look for ways to reduce youth tobacco use, responded positively to the idea of a ban, as did her four commission colleagues.

“We need to do this,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who is now the chair-elect, said after the hearing.

The county licenses 771 tobacco retailers, which pay an annual fee of $683 each.

A prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco in a neighboring county hit a legal roadblock earlier this year.

In September, Washington County Circuit Judge Andrew Erwin ruled that a flavored tobacco ban the Washington County Board of Commissioners passed in November 2021 was preempted by state law.

In a four-page opinion, previously examined by WW, Erwin wrote that a 2021 law creating a statewide tobacco licensing system allowed counties to enact “standards for regulating the retail sale of tobacco,” but that standards do not include a prohibition.

The tobacco licensing law “requires the Oregon Health authority to ensure all standards created by state law and rule be enforced consistently throughout the state,” Erwin wrote. “The decision to disallow licensed retail sale of such products must come from the state, not county by county.”

On Nov. 1, Washington County filed notice it would appeal Erwin’s ruling.

In the meantime, Multnomah County will move forward with a hearing at 5:30 tonight on a proposed ordinance banning flavored tobacco sales.

County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says county officials don’t believe Judge Erwin’s ruling is relevant to a potential prohibition on flavored tobacco sales here.

“The Washington County opinion doesn’t apply to Multnomah County because only the Washington County ordinance was at issue in that lawsuit,” Sullivan-Springhetti says.

The hearing may be seen online here.