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The Helena City Commission gave its initial approval Monday night to only part of an ordinance that seeks to prohibit the sale of tobacco products in self-service displays.

The Helena City Commission gave initial approval Monday night to only part of a new tobacco ordinance, removing restrictions on where flavored tobacco products can be sold but advancing a ban on self-service retail displays of tobacco products.

Prior to the vote, Commissioner Ed Noonan successfully moved to strike a section of the ordinance that would confine the sale of flavored tobacco products to “adult only” retailers. Language forbidding the sale of tobacco products from a “self-service display” was left intact.

The commission voted unanimously in favor of the amended ordinance, setting up potential regulation of self-service displays for a final confirmation vote Oct. 29.

Before a full house in the commission chambers, commissioners voting in favor of the ordinance expressed hope that its passage will be the first in a number of new steps taken to curb youth tobacco use in the city of Helena. Opponents argued that the ordinance risked the jobs, businesses and livelihoods of tobacco retailers to keep minors away from products they were already banned from accessing.

Noonan said he had misgivings about the ordinance coming into Monday’s meeting, especially whether it would be effective in curbing youth tobacco use and its impact on Helena businesses.

“For us to go, ‘we’re preventing this by stopping it at just this little spot, and then a mile beyond the next gas station can sell it,’ in the end didn’t seem to me to be the most effective way to try to address this,” Noonan said Tuesday morning.

When public comment yielded to discussion among the commission, Noonan moved to go forward with the ordinance’s restrictions on self-service displays but not with the section regarding flavored tobacco.

“It’s hard to argue with the idea that we need to protect our children from this,” Noonan said. “But the thing that kept sticking with me is, can we take an effective isolated attempt to control this in our city?”

Commissioner Andres Haladay took a more confrontational stance toward opponents of the ordinance, saying it was “hard to listen to the assignment of monetary value as why we can’t take public health steps.”

“$1.2 million is apparently the price that Town Pump puts on youth health,” Haladay said, referencing the amount a district manager for Town Pump estimated the ordinance could cost its company. “It’s a pretty incredibly low value.”

When put to a vote, the motion to pass the ordinance with Noonan’s suggested amendment was unanimously in favor. The motion capped nearly an hour of public comments for and against the ordinance, with most of the protests related to the flavored tobacco restrictions that were later removed. 

Those arguing for the ordinance focused on its potential health benefits for local youth. Opponents focused on the practicality of enforcing it and, in many cases, the firsthand economic impacts it would have on their business.

Some store owners said employee training to spot minors attempting to buy tobacco products already is stringent, and multiple people said they direct their employees to check the IDs of any customers appearing younger than 30 or 40, just to be sure.

“I am not marketing whatsoever to children,” said Deb Monroe of Monroe's High Country Travel Plaza, who told commissioners her store’s tobacco products are kept behind the counter, never on top of it.

Monroe owns the building on U.S. Route 12 that houses Monroe's High Country Travel Plaza and said lost business there would affect the Lucky Duck casino and Shellie’s Country Café, which are located on the same property.

“I spend thousands and thousands of dollars every year supporting causes, groups and anything that comes through my door asking for help,” Monroe said. “We find a way to donate a product, money or something to support everybody else in this community.”

She also described her store’s compliance record as “beyond reproach.”

Many opponents of the ordinance said it could do serious harm to their business’s financial health.

Val Jeffries, a regional director of operations for Holiday Companies, told commissioners it could cost her company’s Helena store $40,000 in sales each month. Brenda Brewer, owner of the Man Store, said her business stood to lose six part-time positions.

Charlie Carson, owner of B&B Market, was even more direct.

“With this ordinance, it will put me out of business,” Carson said. “Period.”

Carson said he had caught his high-school-age children using vaping products before, in both cases procured from friends.

“This will not deter them,” Carson said of the ordinance’s effect on minors. “They all have cars. They’re gonna go out in the city. They’re gonna get it. It will not deter.”

Again, these protests were mainly in regard to limiting flavored tobacco sales to adult-only retailers. 

Brad Longcake, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, thanked commissioners for making an effort to combat underage tobacco use, but said their ordinance’s methods were ineffective.

Longcake said the ordinance before the commission would only force local customers to drive further down the road to find their desired product.

“We want to find a workable solution to this and we’re willing to have stakeholder feedback,” Longcake said. “As somebody mentioned, something like this gives the opportunity for the city to … give advantage to other individuals by just simply driving down the road.”

Chairman Jim Benish of the Lewis and Clark County Board of Health opened public comment for ordinance supporters by reciting a Sept. 27 board resolution calling on Helena to “enact a policy to protect public health and welfare by reducing access to flavored tobacco and self-service access to tobacco products, making it easier to quit and more difficult to start.” The resolution was reprinted verbatim as the stated intent of the city ordinance.

Other health professionals followed Benish, including state medical officer Dr. Greg Holzman of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and Helena High School nurse Deb Sargent.

Sargent, who told commissioners she did not come representing Helena Public Schools, spoke of how she was able to help her children develop a taste for broccoli by initially pairing it with cheese. A similar approach, she said, is employed by tobacco companies to tempt high school students into trying products with “candy-like” flavoring.

“We make unknowns palatable for our kids by pairing them with something they like, and the tobacco companies know that,” Sargent said. “Kids probably wouldn’t choose to smoke or use vapes if they actually had to taste the tobacco.”

Lois Fitzpatrick of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network told commissioners she approached the podium Monday night only as a Helena resident, mother and grandmother. She shared with them the stories of her parents, both of whom began smoking at a young age and eventually died of related afflictions – her father of lung cancer, her mother of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Fitzpatrick then warned the commission that nine of 10 adult smokers begin smoking before age 18, a statistic backed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research. She brought along a box of electronic cigarette products to pass around, allowing commissioners to note the color and design.

A handful of familiar political faces also testified in favor of the ordinance, including Lewis and Clark County school superintendent candidate Reg Hageman, state Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell and state Sen. Mary Caferro.

Hageman, a physical education teacher at Capital High, said the portrayal of electronic cigarettes as “edgy” and the sight of a young person using a Juul on a plane made him wary of vaping’s appeal to his students.

“It’s getting more and more difficult to work with students in schools,” Hageman said. “You don’t know who is using and the technology’s getting pretty good. So anything the commission can do to help the students of Helena is a good step in the right direction.”

The ordinance, minus restrictions on flavored tobacco, will be brought up again in a public hearing at the Oct. 29 city commission meeting. The Oct. 29 meeting is scheduled to convene at 6 p.m. in the commission chambers of the City/County Building, 316 N. Park Ave.

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