SAN JOSE, Calif. — California’s third-largest city banned flavored tobacco products from store shelves this summer, joining scores of other cities and counties in the state in a public health push to reduce nicotine addiction among youth and young adults.
Like San Jose, Sacramento County also enacted a ban this summer. Los Angeles and San Diego, California’s largest cities, will implement the ban in January.
Although communities large and small across the state have already acted, Californians will decide in November whether to implement the nation’s most comprehensive statewide ban on flavored tobacco — making it illegal for brick-and-mortar retailers to sell flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes, or vapes, which are flavored with menthol. The sale of gum or gum that contains nicotine and is not approved by the FDA will also be banned.
A 2020 state law that would ban the sale of these products was at issue — but never took effect. Within days of its passage, Big Tobacco launched a referendum campaign to overturn the law.
A “yes” vote in the referendum, known as Proposition 31, would keep the law in place, banning the sale of flavored tobacco. A “no” vote would overturn the law.
If the measure passes, more restrictive local ordinances would remain in place while state laws would override weaker restrictions. If the referendum fails, all local restrictions will remain in effect.
San Jose began banning the sale of flavored tobacco products on July 1. City resident Joseph Smith, who was working at a local tobacco shop on a recent Tuesday, said he started smoking at age 12 when his friend gave him a menthol cigarette. Now 30, Smith said he quit smoking cigarettes two years ago by smoking puff bars — thin disposable vapes that are now illegal to sell under a city ban. He also said he no longer vapes.
Smith said he doesn’t support Big Tobacco’s marketing tactics but also doesn’t support taking away people’s freedom to buy the products they want at local stores.
“They kill people; They profit people’s lives,” Smith said of the tobacco industry. “But overall, I still think people have the right to do what they want.”
Supporters of local ordinances and statewide bans say the measures are primarily intended to protect young people from becoming addicted, as Smith did.
“We can stop Big Tobacco from using flavors to hook kids to nicotine and profit from addiction, disease and death,” former state Sen. Jerry Hill, who authored the 2020 legislation, told lawmakers at a recent legislative hearing on the ballot measure. . “If we can save a few lives by stopping the sale of candy-flavored tobacco, it will all be worth it.”
A 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 75% of middle school students and 80% of high school students who use tobacco use flavored products, often with “kid-friendly flavors, such as berry, cherry, apple, cotton candy.” candy and bubble gum,” which mask the harshness of tobacco and serve as gateways for minors to smoke.
In 2020, an estimated 4.5 million middle and high school students use tobacco products. Before the pandemic, the number of youth surveyed on school campuses had been steadily increasing, rising from 3.6 million in 2017 to 6.2 million in 2019, according to the CDC study.
“It’s not good for young brain development,” said Kevin Schroth, an associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health. Schroth previously worked on tobacco control policy in New York City, which banned the sale of flavored tobacco in 2009. “There is no reason for them to become addicted to these products.”
If Californians support the state law, they would become the fifth state to adopt a flavor ban, following Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. About 345 localities across the country ban the sale of flavored tobacco.
But some of these laws, including California’s, have glaring flaws, such as allowing premium cigars, hookah, pipe tobacco and flavors in online purchases. While some cities and states have banned Internet sales, others have cited legal concerns about regulating interstate commerce — a task left to the federal government. In April, the FDA proposed rules to ban the manufacture, distribution and sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, but the rules have not yet been finalized.
In June, the agency ordered vaping company Juul to stop selling its e-cigarettes, but suspended the ban a week and a half later following the company’s federal lawsuit. The FDA said its order requires further scientific review. Meanwhile, legislation to ban the sale of flavored tobacco has stalled in Congress.
The tobacco industry spent about $22 million to overturn California’s law, compared to $5.7 million spent by supporters of the ban. Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the “No on Prop 31” campaign, said by email that the government regulations limit adult smokers’ right to choose and take away the cigarette option that some people use to kick the habit. Miller said the campaign agrees “youth should never have access to any tobacco products,” which have been illegal in California for those under 21 since 2016.
Public health officials, however, say the flavored products are clearly marketed to young children — and they consume them. For example, a 2021 survey from Santa Clara County found that 93% of high school students who used tobacco chose a flavored product. More than half of those surveyed by vape said they have purchased e-cigarettes themselves.
“When products are available, young people may be able to find ways to obtain these products,” said Dawn Tran, policy coordinator for the county’s Tobacco-Free Communities Program. “But when you’re actually able to physically remove the product from being sold on the shelf, you’re going to drastically reduce that availability.”
It’s too early to tell if the taste ban is working in San Jose.
At Houdini’s Smoke Shop downtown, co-owner John Tokhi said the shop has lost about 80% of its sales to neighboring municipalities where sales of the product are still legal. Before Prohibition, he said, a warm summer evening would attract a line of businessmen and concertgoers. That crowd has been replaced by clients scurrying sporadically for cigarette packs and smoking paraphernalia.
The shelves in the back of his shop that once displayed flavored vapes are now nearly empty, filled only with nicotine-free vapes and a few ballcaps.
“There are a bunch of angry customers,” Tokhi said. “They are really upset. They don’t want to drive anymore. It has decreased a lot.”
Studies show that flavored tobacco laws have worked to curb teen use. In New York City, for example, public health officials analyzed the decline in flavored tobacco sales and concluded that teenagers were 37% less likely to use flavored tobacco four years after the local ban was passed.
New York City Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention Tobacco Policy and Program Director Dr. Achla Talati said young people “use tobacco opportunistically” by sharing the product with friends or smoking it when it’s readily available. Thus, reducing the availability of flavored products reduces youth nicotine exposure, he said.
“Decreasing access to products locally leads to less consumption,” Talati said.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
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