Snuffed out? Sacramento City Council to vote on flavored tobacco ban this year

The Sacramento City Council will vote in November on whether to outlaw flavored tobacco within city limits, including loose leaf varieties, vape cartridges and menthol cigarettes, after a unanimous committee vote Tuesday night.

The proposed ban would also bar tobacco-selling shops from opening within 1,000 feet of each other, which would thin the herd of retailers considerably. There are 305 shops currently selling tobacco products within that range of each other — 79 percent of the city’s total. Those shops won’t be grandfathered in when their licenses expire.

Tuesday afternoon’s Law and Legislation Committee meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd to the City Council chambers, where convenience store owners, ex-smokers and industry advocates verbally battled health professionals, NAACP members and teenagers during an hour-long public comment session.

Councilman Steve Hansen motioned to bring the bans to a council vote, which Councilman Jeff Harris seconded before Councilmen Eric Guerra and Jay Schenirer concurred.

Hansen, Harris and Guerra all shared personal anecdotes of watching family members slowly die of tobacco-related illnesses. Harris served as his mother’s hospice worker before she died in his arms at age 66, he said, after a battle with lung cancer that started with menthol cigarettes.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the tobacco industry has been insidious in foisting upon the American people a product that costs us billions of dollars and loss of life,” he said. “We all know that youth are vaping, we all know that youth use cigarettes, and it is totally clear that flavors are a way to entice this segment of the population.”

About half as many high school students smoked traditional cigarettes in 2017 as did in 2011 (7.6 percent compared to 15.8 percent), according to Center for Disease Control statistics. But nearly 12 percent of high school students in 2017 reported smoking e-cigarettes, which come in flavors such as piña colada, strawberry mint and gummy bear, including the wildly popular and compact Juul.

Rachel Alvarez’s 18- and 16-year-old siblings said they started vaping because it smelled good, looked cool and their friends were already doing it, she told the committee Tuesday.

“I want to be able to raise a family here in Sacramento without concern that my youth are going to start (using) tobacco products,” said Alvarez, the Sacramento Native American Health Center community programs manager. “I don’t want to have to worry about them transitioning to something like cigarettes just because they started with vaping.”

Business owners argued that they follow existing laws regarding not selling tobacco products to minors, who can usually find their e-cigarette of choice available for purchase online, and shouldn’t have to face the financial consequences of an outright ban. Several met with city staff Sept. 18 to advocate for alternatives to a flavored tobacco ban, such as more aggressive punishments for underage sales and keeping those under 21 from entering tobacco retail stores at all.

A Change.org petition titled “Stop the Sacramento Flavor Ban!!!” had more than 1,250 signatures as of Wednesday morning. The petition’s organizer, Red Randolph, co-owns a local vape shop and was a smoker for 26 years before turning to e-cigarettes, she told the committee at Tuesday’s meeting.

Traditional solutions such as nicotine gum, patches and Wellbutrin made Randolph sick and didn’t appease her cravings, she said. But vaping did the trick.

“Vaping is the only thing that has gotten me down to the point where I can go days without a cigarette, and I’ve been (smoking) since I got hooked on it at 12 years old,” she said. “I have five kids and I want to be around to see them graduate, and I want to be able to help other parents do that as well.”

City staff pushed through with their recommendation for the committee to pass the ordinance through to the rest of the council, though. The City Council is unlikely to hold a vote on the proposed ban for at least the next month. If passed, it would go into effect Jan. 1, 2019.

California Department of Public Health data shows more than 80 percent of state tobacco retailers sold flavored non-cigarette tobacco products in 2016, and more than 90 percent sold menthol cigarettes.

Yolo County banned flavored tobacco sales in October 2016, the Davis Enterprise reported. San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond have all passed similar legislation since then.

This article was updated Oct. 25 at 10 a.m. to clarify that the city council does not intend to ban hookahs, but will consider banning the sale of flavored loose leaf tobacco, which can be smoked in hookahs.

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