Sacramento City Hall holds the line in tobacco industry’s fight against flavor ban

How this Sacramento smoke shop owner proposes to stop teen smoking

Ryan Donnelly, owner of Exhale Smoke Shop in Sacramento, proposes an alternative on Tuesday, March 19, 2019 to stop teen smoking instead of the proposed city ban on flavored tobacco.
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Ryan Donnelly, owner of Exhale Smoke Shop in Sacramento, proposes an alternative on Tuesday, March 19, 2019 to stop teen smoking instead of the proposed city ban on flavored tobacco.

Sacramento is poised to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products – including menthol cigarettes and e-cigarette cartridges – after elected officials Tuesday rejected a counter-proposal from the tobacco industry.

The counter-proposal, presented to the City Council’s Law and Legislation committee Tuesday by former council member Rob Fong, included a list of new requirements that would have made it harder for shops to sell tobacco products to minors instead of banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products.

“If you pass the (flavor) ban ... you will put dozens and dozens of local small businesses out of business in the city of Sacramento,” Fong, a consultant for the Vapor Technology Association, told the committee Tuesday.

The tobacco industry’s proposal would have required “age verification technology” that can scan ID cards. It would have also banned the use of cartoon-like characters and celebrity images and required child-resistant caps on e-liquid containers.

Several owners of convenience stores and vape shops in the city told the committee the flavor ban would drastically impact their businesses and even force them to close. Former smokers said vaping was the only thing that helped them quit smoking. A Change.org petition called “Stop the Sacramento Flavor Ban!!!” had more than 1,300 signatures Tuesday afternoon.

Noorddin Kachhi, owner of Cloud 9 smoke and vape shop in Natomas, said if the flavor ban is approved, he would have to lay off almost all his employees.

“At my store, vape products are up to 85 percent of sales,” Kachhi told the committee. “Most of my customers are ex-smokers who switched to vaping as a healthier alternative. The sales are going to get pushed to the county. People will go online (to buy flavored tobacco). So it’s a lose-lose for all of us.”

The city has 386 tobacco retailers, including 40-some “vape shops,” which would be impacted the most, Councilman Jay Schenirer said.

Others urged the committee to move forward with the flavor ban, arguing that flavored vape products like the popular Juul vape pens are getting high school kids addicted to nicotine.

“What you have before you is a tobacco industry sham,” said Jim Knox of the American Cancer Society of the counter-proposal. “Juul has helped addict a whole new generation to nicotine.”

In 2011, about 220,000 students were using e-cigarettes, which are frequently flavored, compared to 3.05 million students in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A third of African Americans in Sacramento smoke and the vast majority smoke menthols, Tim Gibbs of the American Cancer Society wrote in a letter to the City Council last week. Menthol cigarettes are cheaper in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods, the letter read.

In Oak Park, which is 18 percent African American with a median income of nearly $34,000, a pack of Newport menthol cigarettes is 75 cents cheaper than in East Sacramento, which is 2 percent African American and has a median income about $90,000, the American Cancer Society wrote in a Sacramento Bee letter to the editor.

“Menthol cigarettes are a deadly scourge of the African American community in Sacramento,” the letter read.

Kimberly Bankston-Lee, who volunteers for the Sacramento County Health Department, said she has seen firsthand the differences in advertising and price of menthol cigarettes in black communities.

“The ordinance proposed today is a travesty to our most vulnerable communities,” Bankston-Lee said. “This is a racial injustice.”

Committee members, who unanimously recommended the flavor ban in October, continued to support it Tuesday.

“We’re talking about a new generation becoming addicted, not only to nicotine, but a new way of getting it,” Councilman Steve Hansen said. “When you talk to the kids at the schools in my district, McClatchy in particular, all the kids are doing it.”

Hansen, who was elected to council in 2012, said he has never seen an industry proposal placed on the Law and Legislation Committee agenda for debate.

“It honestly speaks to the power of tobacco, to the power of the retailers ... you’re demonstrating the muscle that you have,” Hansen said.

Schenirer asked city staff to find out how much tax money the city would lose from vape shops under the ban, and asked for a survey of vape shops before the council vote.

Yolo County, San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond have banned flavored tobacco sales.

State bills have been introduced to ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, said Stephanie Winn, an American Cancer Society spokeswoman. A first hearing is scheduled for the Senate bill on March 27.

The next City Council meeting is March 26, but Councilwoman Angelique Ashby requested the flavor ban vote not be on the agenda for that meeting because she will be absent. As of Tuesday afternoon, city officials had not yet decided when the council would vote on the flavor ban.

Councilman Jeff Harris suggested the ban, if approved by council, would not take effect until at least 90 days to give time for state lawmakers to pass a statewide ban first and give retailers time to adapt. Schenirer agreed.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.