Fremont City Council balks at flavored tobacco ban
Fremont Won't Ban Flavored Tobacco and Nicotine Items
Council signals support for new tobacco retailer license, minimum pack sizes
By Joseph Geha - San Jose Mercury News
You can still buy flavored tobacco and nicotine products in the Bay Area’s fourth-largest city after the Fremont City Council balked at banning them.
Though the council this week bucked the recommendation from city staff and the Human Relations Commission to ban such products, it moved toward setting other rules restricting tobacco sales.
Owners of convenience stores and smoke shops who said the ban would have cut into their businesses or forced them to close were happy with the decision, while advocates for keeping vapes or e-cigarettes out of the reach of youth were let down.
Responding to the climbing youth vaping rates that the Food and Drug Administration has called an epidemic, however, the council agreed to require retailers who want to sell tobacco products to obtain a license from the city and to establish minimum pack sizes and pricing for cigarettes, cigarillos and cigars.
The rules would set a minimum price of $8 “per pack of 20 cigarettes, 20 little cigars, or 5 cigars,” and the sale of single cigars less for less than $5 would be prohibited to help deter youth buyers.
The new rules won’t become official until the council holds a second reading of the ordinance, likely in September, when the council will consider a flavored tobacco products ban again.
The goal of the new license and price minimums, officials said, is to hold retailers more accountable, and make it harder for youth to access tobacco and nicotine products, including e-cigarettes and vapes.
Among high school students, e-cigarette usage increased from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 20.8 percent in 2018, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of the National Youth Tobacco Survey, city staff said.
A California Healthy Kids Survey for the Fremont Unified School District in 2017-18 school year showed 43 percent of juniors, 36 percent of freshmen, and 16 percent of seventh graders believe that “it is either very easy or fairly easy to obtain cigarettes,” according to a city staff report.
The same survey showed that more than 1 in 10 juniors in the city have used an e-cigarette.
City staff had recommended that the council ban the sale of all flavored tobacco and nicotine products, including menthol or other minty flavors, but the majority of the council thought that was a bridge too far.
“The FDA administration believes the presence of flavors is one of the components making these products especially attractive to kids,” Suzanne Shenfil, the city’s human services director told the council, while holding two tobacco products in “banana smash and honey berry” flavors as an example.
As of May, roughly 160 cities and counties in California have enacted some sort of tobacco retail license. Of those, 35 have either banned or placed restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products, including Hayward, Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro and Livermore in Alameda County.
Livermore earlier this month also banned the sale of all e-cigarettes and vaping devices in the city, becoming only the second city in the state to take that step, after San Francisco.
Kristie Wang, who grew up in Fremont and is raising two teenagers in Livermore, said she was happy to see Fremont take some action toward addressing youth access, but was disappointed the flavored tobacco ban was not approved.
“This is the right thing to do, it’s the right thing for our kids,” she said Thursday.
“It’s currently the only thing we can do, is to do this city by city until there’s enough courage and momentum at the state or national levels.”
Some teenagers, including Erica Wooding, an incoming junior at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, spoke about how it is easy for kids to get their hands on vapes and e-cigarettes.
“Vaping has become a lot more popular and common. Kids leave class to vape, and there are some kids who can’t leave classes anymore because they’ve been caught vaping too many times,” she said at the council meeting Tuesday night.
Retailers, however, told the council while they were largely OK with the minimum pack size and prices, and the new city-issued license, banning the sale of flavored tobacco products could shut vape shops down, and cut heavily into the business of convenience or liquor stores.
“With this ban you’d just be pushing people to smoke cigarettes,” Sam Randhawa, who owns the Vapor Planes store in Fremont, said Tuesday.
He said 70 percent of his business is selling flavored tobacco or nicotine products, and the city should work more closely with retailers to find other ways to curb youth access.
Other retailers said the city, schools, and parents need to better educate kids about the risks involved with smoking and tobacco or nicotine use, and not penalize retailers who are doing legal business.
In an initial vote to approve all of the staff recommendations, including the ban, the council split evenly, as Councilman Yang Shao was absent.
Mayor Lily Mei, Councilman Vinnie Bacon and Councilwoman Jenny Kassan voted in favor, while Vice Mayor Raj Salwan, Councilman Rick Jones, and Councilwoman Teresa Keng voted no.
Keng and Jones both expressed concern about what would happen to businesses that rely heavily on flavored tobacco sales, especially for those renting a shop space.
“If they have like three or four years of the lease left, how would they resolve that?,” Keng asked. “The landlord would not let them off the hook.”
Salwan also said he thinks the city should better support education campaigns to teach kids about the dangers of smoking and using nicotine products, and should “postpone” the flavor ban.