Sacramento can protect kids without putting tobacco shops out of business. Here’s how

Mario Weaks, a sales associate at The Vapor Spot in midtown Sacramento, exhales from his e-cigarette in 2015. Vape shop owners say a proposed citywide ban on flavored tobacco products would devastate their business.
Mario Weaks, a sales associate at The Vapor Spot in midtown Sacramento, exhales from his e-cigarette in 2015. Vape shop owners say a proposed citywide ban on flavored tobacco products would devastate their business. Sacramento Bee file

One side says the health of Sacramento’s children is at risk. The other side says the survival of small businesses is at stake.

Both sides have dug in their heels, so it’s difficult to find a common ground. But it’s still the City Council’s duty to try, as it debates new limits on tobacco retailers, including a ban on all sales of flavored tobacco to adults, in addition to children.

After hearing an hour of impassioned testimony from supporters and opponents, the council’s Law and Legislation Committee voted Tuesday to send the proposed changes to the ordinance to the full council.

But the panel was right to also ask city staff for some crucial information before the council votes as early as next month:

What would be the impact on Sacramento’s economy and tax revenue?

A convenience store group claims that a ban would cost the city a projected $55 million a year in taxable revenue, equal to $1.1 million in local sales taxes. Local vape businesses record $111 million a year in sales, according to their trade association.

What have been the results of restrictions in other California cities?

While some cities have limited access to flavored tobacco, San Francisco became the first in the nation with an outright ban after voters in June overwhelmingly upheld an ordinance that supervisors approved last year.

Can a ban be phased in to lessen the impact on businesses?

Here’s another issue that needs to be fleshed out: Is it possible to draft the ordinance so it doesn’t completely shut down vape bars and shops? Owners warned the committee that all vaping products are flavored – even to taste like tobacco – so they could all be covered.

According to the city, there are 386 stores that sell tobacco. Under the proposal, no new city licenses would be issued and no existing licenses would be renewed for a retailer within 1,000 feet of another, unless they meet other conditions. Potentially, that could force numerous shops to shut down, since more than 300 of them are that close together.

The focus, however, is on the ban on flavored tobacco, including vape cartridges, menthol cigarettes and hookah. A violation would lead to license suspensions; a fourth within five years would mean revocation.

Proponents of the ban, including the American Cancer Society and American Lung Association, argue that tobacco companies are clearly marketing these products to young people to create a new generation of nicotine addicts.

While a 2009 federal law prohibits cigarettes with candy and fruit flavors, non-cigarette flavored tobacco is still legal. According to the state Department of Public Health, more than 80 percent of tobacco retailers, including those near schools, sell such products. And while a 2016 state law raised the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21 and fewer youths are smoking cigarettes, use of other tobacco products, especially e-cigarettes, is rising.

In September, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced new enforcement to cut sales of e-cigs to minors. Late last month, the agency seized sales and marketing documents at the San Francisco headquarters of JUUL Labs, which controls nearly three-fourths of the e-cigarette market and whose products are popular in high schools.

Opponents, including convenience store owners, assert that retailers are doing a good job of checking IDs to prevent sales to minors, and that young people who want these products will buy them online. They also say that adults will go to a neighboring city to buy flavored tobacco there instead, and that a ban will devastate their businesses since these customers also buy gas and snacks.

Instead of an outright ban, retailers are suggesting more enforcement and stiffer penalties for selling tobacco to minors, or a ban on anyone younger than 21 entering a tobacco retailer. Those are ideas worth exploring; the age limit could shield vaping establishments, where all the products are supposed to be for adults only.

In reconciling these competing interests, council members should put the health of children first. But they should also try to limit the collateral damage to small businesses.