Just a few weeks ago San Francisco seemed poised to become the largest jurisdiction in the United States so far to ban flavored tobacco products.
A new regulation that had been unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors in June and signed into law by San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, called for a ban, effective April 2018, on sales of flavored tobacco including menthol cigarettes, flavored liquid for e-cigarettes and flavored chewing tobacco.
Then a group called Let’s Be Real San Francisco, funded by tobacco giant RJ Reynolds according to papers filed with the city, gathered enough signatures to require the ban be voted on during an upcoming election.
Unless the Board of Supervisors repeals the regulation the proposal to ban flavored tobacco is expected to be voted on by San Francisco’s citizens next June. “A repeal is unlikely, though, because the vote for the ban was unanimous,” says Valerie B. Yerger, an Associate Professor of Health Policy in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and in the Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education at UCSF.
Both supporters and detractors of the ban are vowing a fight. “the referendum is unscrupulous and we are…at work further educating voters in San Francisco who are already hip to the devious tactics Big Tobacco uses to maintain profits at the expense of people’s lives,” says Bob Gordon, co-chair of the San Francisco Tobacco Free Coalition, in a statement. Seven out of ten African-American young smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association. “Ending the sale of menthol and other flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes will reduce teen use and ultimately save lives,” says Vanessa Marvin, the Lung Association’s vice president for public policy and advocacy in California.
Flavored tobacco is widely used by young, minority and LGBTQ smokers, says Lori Bremmer, California’s Grassroots Director of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “It’s long past time we stop tobacco companies from targeting kids and other vulnerable populations by using flavored products to make it easier for people to start [smoking] and stay addicted to using tobacco products,” says Bremmer.
Lobbying is expected to be equally fierce among people opposed to the ban which includes owners of more than 900 corner stores in San Francisco. According to Miriam Zouzounis, director of the Arab American Grocers Association, tobacco accounts for 20 to 40 percent of corner store sales and flavored tobacco accounts for 10 to 15 percent of those sales. “In addition, it’s tobacco that drives many customers to the stores in the first place and leads to other purchases. Without tobacco to bring them in, some customers will buy sandwiches, drinks and other items at other stores,” says Zouzounis. And, adds Zouzounis, “while we’ve been accused of selling items of death, tobacco is only one of the items we sell. If the ban goes through and stores are forced to close, many people in communities without supermarkets will have no local store for diapers and other necessities.”
Store owners also question how effective the ban will be. “Nearby Daly City won’t have a ban and smokers can just buy flavored tobacco there,” says Regina Dick-Endrizzi, director of the Office of Small Business in San Francisco, though advocates such as Yerger say several California cities have ban proposals “and it’s just a matter of time before they pass.” Dick-Endrizzi says it’s also easy to buy the products online. She was able to buy flavored tobacco online without an ID, which is required by law and she says smartphone delivery apps will also make it easy for smokers to bypass the ban.
In an effort to help reverse revenue loss if the ban is implemented, Mayor Lee recently met with corner store owners, says Miriam Zouzounis who attended the meeting. Among the requests, a rollback of the $6 per cigarette pack litter abatement fee and other taxes the store owners pay, and bulk purchasing opportunities, to help reduce costs for corner store owners. At the meeting were also representatives of Healthy Retail SF, an initiative of the city and the department of public health to talk about opportunities for stores to profitably sell more healthful foods.
And many corner stores plan to apply for another revenue stream next year that they hope would take the place of flavored tobacco sales if the ban is implemented—licenses to sell recreational marijuana. Guidance on who will be able to apply for those licenses is expected to be released by the state in early 2018.
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