Will San Jose Ban Flavored Tobacco?

Some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies have launched rigorous lobbying campaigns to stop a city proposal.

When it comes to tobacco products, San Jose leaders appear to agree — the fruity, minty and candied flavor kind should be taken off the shelves across the city and far away from the eyes of easily enticed kids.

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So why — a week before San Jose was expected to join more than 100 cities and counties across California in banning the sale of flavored tobacco — did they decide to delay the vote by more than three months?

Public records reveal that the early June decision from a council committee to postpone the ban came on the heels of rigorous lobbying campaigns from some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies. Council members who advocated for the delay, however, say they merely thought the city needed to conduct more robust outreach to affected businesses before stopping the sales.

“As this problem came to the Rules Committee, I discussed the issue with the lobbyists on both sides of the issue, as well as city administration leadership, all with the same message: we need to get the process right as we move this policy forward,” councilmember Sylvia Arenas said in the statement this week, adding that she felt “the city administration did not meet the standards of small business outreach.”

Proponents of the ban, however, worry, that the delay increases the chances that more San Jose residents — most notably teenagers and people of color — will get hooked on the addictive nicotine products. They’re also concerned that the tobacco industry will use the additional time to lobby city leaders to scrap the ordinance altogether or water it down by carving out further exemptions.

“We were extremely disappointed to hear about the delay and witness firsthand Big Tobacco’s influence in our community,” Phillip Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said in a statement. “We strongly urge the city of San Jose to stand strong against big tobacco companies to prevent them from exploiting our youth and communities of color to boost their bottom line.”

The proposed ordinance, which the city council was originally expected to consider on June 15, is now slated to be discussed on September 28.

Under the proposal, the city would ban the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol products, and prohibit new tobacco retailers within 500 feet of another tobacco retailer and within 1,000 feet of a school, park, community center or library.

Retailers would be given six months to deplete the newly prohibited products. Hooka, shisha and premium cigars would all be exempt, according to the city’s proposal.

If approved, San Jose could become the largest city in the state to ban flavored tobacco, following in the belated footsteps of cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 signed a bill banning the sale of most flavored tobacco products statewide, but the tobacco industry promptly responded by successfully funding a referendum campaign, which put the ban on hold until voters decide whether to enact it in 2022. If approved, the statewide ban would then supersede similar city ordinances.

In San Jose, four lobbyists representing embattled electronic cigarette company Juul and Reynolds American Inc. Services Company — the nation’s second-largest tobacco company — called, emailed or texted city leaders more than a dozen times in the days leading up to, and just hours before, the city’s June 9 Rules & Open Government Committee meeting, according to the city’s public lobbying reports.

Sharanjit Kali-rai and former Silicon Valley Organization executive Eddie Truong advocated for a delay of the San Jose vote on behalf of Juul, while Victor Ajlouny and Richard De La Rosa campaigned with the same goal on behalf of Reynolds. De La Rosa was paid $22,500 to do Reynolds’ bidding, according to city records.

While advocating for a delay at the Rules Committee meeting, Kali-rai did not identify himself as a lobbyist for Juul but instead told the committee that he was speaking on behalf of small businesses.

“You can’t say that you’re pro-small business or that you’re supporting small businesses or that you love small businesses or that you’re there for the small guy if you’re going to ignore them when it matters,” he said at the meeting.

Last month, Juul agreed to pay North Carolina $40 million to settle the first of a stream of lawsuits against the company for accusations of deceptive marketing practices that contributed to an influx of nicotine addiction in teenagers.

Ajlouny — a registered lobbyist on behalf of Reynolds — called both Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmember Dev Davis on the day of the vote to push for the delay, according to city records. In addition to his lobbying efforts, Ajlouny is also an unpaid campaign adviser for Davis, who recently announced she is running for mayor in 2022.

Davis, who made the motion to delay a decision on the matter, said she did not see her conversation with Aljouny as a conflict of interest. She also noted that she spoke with Leslee Guardino, a lobbyist on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids who was pushing for the council to approve the ban as soon as possible and who was also a strong supporter of Davis’ previous campaigns.

“I’ve been very clear with the lobbyists on both sides — the Tobacco-Free Kids side and the tobacco industry side — that I’m likely to support a ban whenever it comes, but I do care about small businesses a lot and I wanted to make sure they knew what was coming,” she said in an interview this week. “And, frankly I wanted to see us get a little further past reopening so that these businesses could recover. That’s all.”

Councilmembers David Cohen and Raul Peralez both pushed back on the delay, though they inevitably voted to support it.

“I don’t want to delay this too much given that we’re all basically telegraphing an outcome on the issue and we can delay the benefits for our students who have access near their schools,” Cohen said during the June 9 meeting.

The city held an earlier Zoom session to hear from affected businesses where 97 of the city’s 687 tobacco retailers participated, according to city officials. The city’s next webinar for tobacco retailers is set to take place on July 29.

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