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San Francisco banned flavored tobacco sales. Now what?

Pria Mahadevan
Janine Young, Senior Environmental Health Inspector from San Francisco's Department of Public Health, conducts a compliance visit in a local corner store

San Francisco voters banned all flavored tobacco sales last June, and full enforcement of that law began on January 1st. But what happens when small businesses have to pull these products off their shelves, and how is the city helping with the transition? Janine Young, one of the Senior Environmental Health Inspectors from the Department of Public Health, arrives at a gas station in the Sunset District one chilly winter morning. She’s here to conduct one of the department’s flavored tobacco compliance checks.

As part of the transition away from flavored tobacco, the city plans to visit every store selling these products before the end of February to make sure they’re complying with the law. Today, Young is checking up gas stations, corner stores, and smoke shops.

During each visit, Young verifies that there are no longer any flavored products in the business. That includes everything from flavored nicotine vape liquids to sweetened hookahs, and even menthol cigarettes. As of January first, every tobacco retailer in San Francisco selling any of these products risks suspension of their permit.

A winding legislative path

While the change may seem sudden, this law has been in the works for nearly two years. It all started when former Board Supervisor Malia Cohen announced in April of 2017 that she and the board were planning to pass an ordinance banning sales on all flavored tobacco products.

“Flavored products are widely considered to be starter products,” she said at the April press conference. “They taste good, they mask the flavor of tobacco, they make it easier for people experimenting with tobacco to become lifelong users.”

According to the California Department of Public Health, 80% of young tobacco users started with a flavored product. Young argues that some of those flavors seem specifically geared towards young people.

“People will say that those products were designed for adults,” she notes. “But, are adults really smoking birthday cake? Are they smoking bubble gum?”

A few months after Cohen’s announcement in 2017, the ordinance was unanimously approved the Board of Supervisors. But even before the ban could be enforced, it was met with resistance.

A coalition of business associations, with backing from tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, pushed the ordinance onto the June 2018 ballot and triggered a city-wide vote. In San Francisco, it’s possible to delay or even reject a law if a group gathers enough valid signatures for a public referendum.

The ordinance appeared on the ballot as Proposition E, and the tobacco group poured nearly 12 million dollars into a campaign to defeat it.

However, San Francisco ultimately affirmed the Board of Supervisors’ ban on flavored tobacco with 68 percent of the vote.

“My initial reaction after it passed? Oh, we have to get busy,” Young says with a laugh.

Preparing for full enforcement

Once the ban officially became law, it ended up on the desks of Young and her coworkers at the Department of Public Health.

According to the law, retailers can have their tobacco permits suspended for up to a year if they’re caught selling flavored products. But Young says they did not want to jump straight into enforcement.

“I think the hard part is that public health initiatives take time,” Young says. “And we’re just taking slow steps.”

Since June, they’ve reached out to the business community to gather questions and concerns, created fact sheets on the ins and outs of what constitutes a flavored tobacco product, and visited every single tobacco retailer in the city to educate owners about the new law.

Lingering uncertainties draw concerns

All of that brings us to today, on this compliance visit. These visits are one of the final puzzle pieces to rolling out the city’s flavored tobacco ban. Even though the city has taken its time in the transition, Young says there’s only so much they can control.

“None of us have a crystal ball — we don’t know what will happen,” she says.

Meaning, will customers buy their favorite flavored products online or elsewhere? Will they switch over to using unflavored tobacco, or even stop smoking altogether? The uncertainty around future customer behavior has products some anxiety within San Francisco’s small business community.

Some of the business owners Young visits today are generally in favor of the ban. Sam Kaleh, owner of Lucca Food, Deli and Wine Shop, says he supports the city’s initiative. However, he has some reservations.

“I’m with the city with it, but I’m against that we are isolated...because people can go buy somewhere else, and it’s not fair for us,” he says.

For Kaleh, the ban didn’t go far enough, and maybe it would have been better to pass a more comprehensive ban on flavored tobacco products that extended beyond San Francisco city limits.

Credit Pria Mahadevan / KALW
Sam Kaleh, owner of Lucca Food, Deli & Wine stands in front of his reduced supply of unflavored tobacco products.

But down the street at A1 Smoke Shop, the owner has a very different reaction to the ban.

“So basically, you want to see how you close us down,” the owner argues as Young introduces herself. He is worried that losing flavored tobacco sales will force him out of business, and he questions the law’s basic fairness.

“Every year, we always got something banned from us. So it’s a rough life,” he says.

Many of the corner store and smoke shop owners I spoke with for this piece echoed this sentiment, saying they’re feeling pressure from the city’s efforts to regulate tobacco.

For example, since 2010, every tobacco retailer in San Francisco has had to pay a cigarette litter tax on every pack they sell. That tax is continually increasing, which can be a headache for both bookkeeping and their bottom line.

Additionally, in 2016, businesses could no longer sell tobacco to anyone under 21 years of age, which marked an increase from the previous minimum age requirement of 18 years old.

Most businesses also say they face a lot of other pressures that go beyond tobacco laws. Some are basic, like rent increases. However, many retailers are also thinly-staffed. Managers work long hours and through weekends to stay competitive.

So, when this owner expresses his frustration, it’s like an outlet for all of these challenges and grievances. For some, the flavored tobacco ban feels like the latest blow in a long series of setbacks.

“Our rent goes up and business goes down. So, I say probably by next year, I’ll be closed down,” he laments.

Solutions for small businesses still unclear

Young believes San Francisco is resilient. She has seen tobacco retailers adapt as the laws surrounding the industry have changed, and she believes they can do it again.

“The community is saying we want healthier neighborhoods, [and] the policy makers are passing laws to build healthier neighborhoods,” she says. “How are we able to improve health and also make sure that our businesses are thriving?”

Young is not offering specific solutions yet, as she believes that the strongest solutions will come from the businesses themselves. There’s a 311 line open for business to call in with any ideas they have to make the transition away from flavored tobacco more manageable for them. In the meantime, though, the Department of Public Health will continue to enforce this ban, and business will have to figure out how, or if, they can stay afloat.

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