The Helena City Commission will hold its first vote Monday on a new city ordinance that would regulate where and how local residents purchase tobacco products.
State law already prohibits sale of tobacco products to minors under the Access to Tobacco Products Control Act. If passed by a second vote Oct. 29, the ordinance would restrict where flavored tobacco products can be sold and prohibit the sale of tobacco products in self-service displays.
The ordinance’s definition of tobacco products includes a wide variety of smoking paraphernalia, including “but not limited to cigarettes, cigars, hookahs, pipes, electronic cigarettes, e-cigars, electronic pipes, vape pens, or electronic hookahs” and any accessories “intended or reasonably expected to be used with a tobacco product.”
Electronic cigarettes and their appeal to minors is a particular concern addressed by the proposal. City Attorney Thomas Jodoin noted in a Sept. 12 version of the ordinance that nearly half of Montana high schoolers have used electronic cigarettes, which are now the most popular tobacco product among the state’s young people.
In the Sept. 12 version, Jodoin said product flavoring was the No. 1 reason young people used tobacco within the past 30 days. The ordinance would confine sale of any flavored tobacco products to “adult only” retailers.
The Access to Tobacco Products Control Act does not require identification when purchasing tobacco products. Retailers only have to ask for proof of a customer’s age when in “reasonable doubt.”
The ordinance further defines a self-service display – from which it would ban the sale of all tobacco products – as an “open display or storage… in a manner that is physically accessible in any way to the general public without the assistance of the retailer.”
The Sept. 12 version also included language, now struck, excepting restaurants that contain seating in their bar areas from restrictions on selling tobacco products in self-service displays. The language was meant to keep the ordinance in line with state law, which prohibits local governments from enacting regulations related to the Access to Tobacco Products Control Act that are “more stringent.”
There is no mention of the restaurant exception in the version included with Monday’s agenda. Jodoin said the ordinance now interprets “self-service display” to cover store shelves rather than vending machines. State law permits machines vending tobacco products only where alcoholic beverages are sold and consumed, and only in restaurants that contain bar-area seating.
To ensure compliance, the ordinance calls for biannual inspections of tobacco retailers in the ordinance’s first year and annual inspections thereafter.
Letters of warning would be served to retailers that violate the ordinance within 60 days of its passage. Thereafter, the Helena Municipal Court is directed to assess a fine of at least $500 for an initial violation, at least $750 for a second and at least $1,000 for a third.
The Sept. 12 version explored the city commission’s findings and intent further than the version commissioners will have Monday night. The previous version stated a connection between menthol and smoking initiation at a young age and predicted that smoking will cause premature death in 19,000 Montana children currently alive, nearly a third of those who will become smokers.
The current ordinance states the commission’s intent is to protect “public health and welfare by reducing access to flavored tobacco products and self-service access to tobacco products, making it easier to quit and more difficult to start.”
The city commission meets at 6 p.m. Monday in the city commission chambers of the City/County Building at 316 N. Park Ave. If the ordinance receives first passage at the meeting, a public hearing will be held Oct. 29 for final passage.