The San Diego Council on Monday passed a decree, led by Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert, to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products – including menthol – in the city with effect from January 1, 2023.
The move follows similar actions in local cities like Imperial Beach, Encinitas and Solana Beach, along with San Diego County for unincorporated areas. It also comes months before a nationwide referendum that addresses the issue in November.
For von Wilpert, the regulation could not wait for the parliamentary elections. She presented petitions with thousands of signatures from the area’s high school students supporting the ordinance, many of which would not be of legal age to vote in the November referendum.
“Tobacco-flavored tobacco products are deliberately marketed to children, and today the San Diego City Council took bold steps to prevent the sale of these products and to protect our youth,” she said. “I thank my colleagues for standing with me to prevent Big Tobacco from becoming addicted to a whole new generation of young tobacco products.”
The executive order does not apply to the sale of shisha, premium cigars or loose-leaf tobacco and e-cigarettes without taste or tobacco taste, as well as FDA-approved cessation devices that will also be exempt from the ban.
Hundreds of speakers spent nearly five hours trying to persuade the city council – which voted 7-2 in favor of the ban – in one way or another. Some of the groups that presented their case for the ban included the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Kaiser Permanente. Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell said in her 40 years of practicing medicine that she had seen the effect on children living in homes with smokers.
“If it is not done at the local level, it will not be done,” she said. “We need to help protect our people.”
According to results presented by von Wilpert’s office, 14.7% of retailers in the most recently completed survey of the city’s tobacco dealers in 2019 sold to a minor police dealer. In an upcoming study, she said, those numbers have risen to nearly 30%.
In violation of the law were dozens of small business owners who claimed that flavored tobacco accounted for anywhere from 25% to almost half of their business. Nearly all of them claimed to be law-abiding business owners who had been praised by the San Diego Police Department for their overall operations. Several also rejected the paternalistic nature of the city council’s new law, saying parents should be responsible for how children were raised, not the government.
In response to the loss of income, Councilman Joe LaCava said he wanted to find a remedy for companies that sold a product that was “legal today and illegal tomorrow.”
“I want to ask our connections in Sacramento to find a way to help these small businesses,” he said.
He was joined in the vote by Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and Councilor Stephen Whitburn.
“This will greatly affect small business owners and their employees and their families,” Whitburn said. “I hope to work with store owners to track the impact of this measure.”
Council members Chris Cate and Vivian Moreno were the two no-votes for the regulation, although they mentioned different reasons.
For Moreno, she said she felt it made no sense to pass a local ordinance just months before California voters would make the November election. She said a far more effective strategy would be to increase the enforcement of existing laws instead of adding more rules to small businesses. She asked the SDPD to present an enforcement plan on the matter.
Cate said he believed the ban would not prevent young people from illegally buying and consuming tobacco products, but drive them back to traditional cigarettes, where their use has declined among younger generations in the past decade.
“It’s wrong to think this is the silver ball we’ve been looking for,” he said.
He also noted the hypocrisy of banning a legal product when the city council a few months earlier reduced taxes on cannabis companies, sending a message to small businesses that the city clearly favored one over the other.
Councilor Monica Montgomery Steppe supported the regulation not only from a public health perspective but also from a racially just perspective. She said large tobacco companies have been targeting the black community with menthol for decades, with black smokers prefer menthol-flavored cigarettes 85% of the time.
“We can call institutional racism without calling anyone individually racist,” she said.
Another aspect of the regulation passed Monday was to officially update the San Diego codes to change the age of sale of tobacco products from 18 to 21. Although the then government. Jerry Brown raised the state sales age to 21 in 2016, San Diego had not updated its laws since.
City News Service contributed to this article.