Multnomah County’s Flavored Tobacco Ban Clears First Hurdle and Would Not Exempt Hookah Lounges

Commissioners reject the exemption in the first reading of the ban.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners took a big step toward banning the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products Thursday night.

Commissioners heard a first reading of an ordinance aimed at curbing the use of fruity and mint-flavored products, which studies have shown are highly popular among teenagers and can lead to nicotine addiction.

“This is an area in which we can make a life-saving difference through public policy,” County Chair Deborah Kafoury said, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, which first reported on last night’s meeting. “The alternative—leaving the sale of flavored tobacco untouched—will only further solidify nicotine and tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death in our community.”

It is already illegal to sell nicotine and tobacco products to people under the age of 21, but in a previous hearing, county health officials presented data showing that 1 in 4 Oregon 12th graders reported using vaping products within the previous 30 days. County health officials have urged a ban, an idea that Kafoury and her four colleagues strongly support.

Not surprisingly, the 771 licensed tobacco retailers in the county do not like the proposed ban. As WW reported earlier, neither do hookah lounges, which are grandfathered into an an exemption from the state’s indoor smoking ban. Only 10 licensees have such a carve-out, and just three operate hookah lounges in the city.

Related: Multnomah County’s Quest to Ban Flavored Tobacco Products Could Wipe Out Hookah Lounges.

Clovis Ain, the Syrian-born owner of Mr. Hookah lounge at Southeast Stark Street and 183rd Avenue, told WW he often picks up used hypodermic needles discarded by drug users who frequent a nearby county shelter for the unhoused, but he now faces the loss of his business over the banning of a legal product. He noted the irony of Measure 110 decriminalized hard drugs, including meth, heroin and many opioids, but his customers would no longer be able to buy flavored tobacco because of the county’s ban.

“It amazes me,” Ain told WW. “Hookah doesn’t take control over your brain. You’re OK to drive after smoking hookah. But meth? Heroin? All this is OK, but we ban flavored tobacco?”

While hookah lounges have strong supporters, health officials note that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a one-hour hookah smoking session subjects users 100 to 200 times the amount of smoke they would inhale from in a single cigarette. And a coalition of advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, opposed the lounges.

So last night when Commissioner Lori Stegmann proposed a carve-out for hookah lounges, her colleagues politely said no.

“What it comes down to, for me, is they are selling a product that is so incredibly damaging,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said, according to OPB.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners voted to ban flavored tobacco last year, but before the ban could take effect, a county judge ruled it violated a new state law. Washington County is appealing and Multnomah County officials believe the ruling does not apply in their case. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids says it obtained a legal opinion from the law firm Stoll Berne that the judge’s ruling on the Washington County ban would likely be overturned on appeal.

Multnomah County commissioners will hear the ban for second and likely final reading on Dec. 15.