Council Bans Sale of Flavored/Menthol Tobacco Products, Debates How to Bring Order to Administration’s Medicaid Contracting Chaos

In its most recent Legislative Meeting, the Council further debated two topics that had already been discussed at great length in a prior meeting—a flavored tobacco ban and how best to extricate the District from a Medicaid contracting mess brought about by inconsistent application of District contracting laws.

In regards to the flavored tobacco ban, this bill was first introduced in 2019 and is currently in its second iteration. The bill was initially meant to combat the use of flavored electronic smoking products, given how they seem to be disproportionately aimed at youth. Following testimony at the earlier hearing on the bill that highlighted the risk and targeted racial marketing of menthol cigarettes, the bill’s sales ban was expanded to include those products. Finally, during debate prior to the first of two necessary votes on the bill at the Council’s previous Legislative Meeting, the bill was amended to exempt pre-existing hookah bars from the bill’s reach.

In an effort to avoid the excesses tied to police enforcement of other cigarette laws both locally and nationally, the bill was drafted to target sales rather than purchase or use of banned products, and placed enforcement authority with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The final draft of the bill went even further and also explicitly blocked the Metropolitan Police Department from enforcing the measure.

The Council’s expanded focus on racial equity this Council Period provided mixed guidance regarding this legislation, since the banned products have racially disparate adverse health impacts, the ban on menthol cigarettes limits consumer choice in a racially disparate way, and despite the bill’s built-in protections, concerns regarding racially disparate and disproportionate enforcement actions persist.

The bill now goes to the Mayor for her review, and will not take effect until/unless it is funded.

In another exercise in challenging Council decision-making, the Council faced no easy answers in attempting to untangle a high-impact Administration contracting bungle regarding Medicaid and Healthcare Alliance contracting. On one side of the debate were those arguing to maintain the status quo, perpetuating contracting irregularities but allowing tens of thousands of Medicaid/Alliance recipients to maintain their current coverage and chosen physicians. On the other side were those who felt that the Council needed to restore order to a chaotic process that had already been found to have been conducted in an inappropriate manner by the Contract Appeals Board.

This emergency bill, requiring a super-majority vote, was first discussed at the prior Legislative Meeting, but was then postponed until the most recent one. In the end, the emergency bill that required the government to honor its own contracting laws, despite potential disruption, rather than retroactively enabling the irregular status quo, narrowly passed.

In other action at the meeting, campaign finance law was modified to allow childcare costs as an authorized campaign expense, and additional flexibility was provided to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in efforts to incentivize the construction of new grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8.

The Council’s next Legislative Meeting will be held on July 13.