D.C. City Council Passes Flavor Ban, Excludes Hookah

The City Council for the District of Columbia (D.C.) voted Tuesday to ban the sale of flavored vaping and other tobacco products in the District, including menthol cigarettes. It was the council’s second vote in favor of the legislation and it now heads to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who supports the ban for health reasons. She has stated that she would sign it into law.

Credit: JHVE Photo

The 8-to-5 vote came after a lengthy debate in which legislators who opposed the ban — and even some who favored it — raised concerns that the law could create opportunities for Black smokers to be harrassed by police, and that the city would be unfairly targeting a smoking choice preferred by Black residents, according to the Washington Post. The Council voted 9-3-1 during the first reading at the June 15 legislative session.

In an attempt to avoid police interactions based on the use of flavored vapor products, the council approved a change to the bill Tuesday saying that the law does not give the city’s police authority to act on their own to enforce the vaping ban. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which can inspect D.C. stores to make sure they are not selling illegal products, could still call in police for assistance.

The council carved out one exception — any hookah bars in the city which already have an exemption from the city’s ban on indoor smoking in restaurants will be grandfathered in, and can continue offering flavored hookah for use on their own premises.

The Biden administration has vowed to eventually outlaw such flavored tobacco products, including menthol, nationwide. The council originally considered banning only e-cigarette products before expanding the bill to include menthol, a step that several legislators opposed.

“If the question is, ‘Is menthol bad for us?’ the answer certainly is yes. But if the question is, ‘Is smoking bad for us?’ the answer also is yes,” said Councilmember Robert White, who voted against the ban. “In the original bill, we were trying to get at things that were targeted toward youth, flavored items. Menthol to me seems like a different category…. I’m seeing this as paternalistic.”

The District joins the state of Massachusetts and some other cities across the country in banning menthol cigarettes, which are popular with Black smokers of all ages, alongside other flavored tobacco products such as the candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarettes that advocates say are targeted toward inducing teenagers to smoke.