San Diego approved a ban Monday on flavored e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, a move supporters said would boost public health for local teens and people living in many minority neighborhoods.
The ban was harshly criticized by the owners of dozens of small neighborhood markets that sell flavored tobacco and vaping products. They called it a racist law that will prevent minorities from enjoying tobacco products of their choice.
Supporters say the ban will combat big tobacco’s strategy of using flavored tobacco to reverse decades of progress in reducing youth usage. Flavored tobacco often comes in packages featuring cartoon characters and the word “candy.”
Critics say the ban will simply force young people to explore unregulated internet sales and other parts of the black market, where sellers don’t pay taxes and aren’t subject to police undercover operations like local neighborhood markets.
The City Council, which approved the ban in a 7-2 vote, delayed the enforcement date to January partly because Californians will vote on a possible statewide ban of flavored tobacco and menthol cigarettes this November.
Opponents said it makes no sense for the city to begin enforcing a local ban with statewide legislation potentially coming. The state Legislature approved a ban in 2020, but the tobacco industry gathered enough signatures for a referendum.
San Diego joins more than 100 cities and counties in California that have passed their own bans in lieu of state action, including San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and Long Beach.
Locally, bans have been passed by Imperial Beach, Encinitas, Solana Beach and San Diego County. The county ban affects all unincorporated areas, but it does not affect cities.
“History has shown us that if we don’t do it on a local level, it’s not going to get done,” Councilmember Dr. Jennifer Campbell said.
Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, who has spearheaded city efforts on a flavored tobacco ban, said she respects that the issue is complex.
“I know there are many feelings on all sides of this issue,” she said. “This is what our democratic process is about.”
Von Wilpert said the deciding factor for her is the health of young people.
“Flavors hook kids,” she said.
She noted that her ban exempts shisha, loose-leaf tobacco, premium cigars, e-cigarettes that don’t use flavored tobacco and some devices that aim to help people quit smoking.
Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe said she was motivated by what she called racist tactics by tobacco companies, which she said have targeted minority communities for decades with menthol cigarettes.
Councilmember Chris Cate, who cast one of the “no” votes, said he doesn’t believe the ban will have the impact supporters expect. He said that while there are conflicting studies on the impact of bans, he believes studies that show bans increase usage.
Cate also said council members are being hypocritical because they recently voted to reduce the city’s cannabis tax without considering in any way how that would affect youth cannabis usage.
Councilmember Vivian Moreno, who cast the other “no” vote, said the city should have waited until after November’s statewide vote on flavored tobacco to consider a ban.
Moreno also said she supports an alternative approach to reducing youth tobacco use: stepping up enforcement efforts and undercover operations by police.
Many of the ban’s opponents are members of the Neighborhood Market Association, a nonprofit trade organization representing more than 700 businesses — more than half of those within San Diego city limits.
The group said its main reason for opposition is the damaging effect it will have on small businesses, which will have to lay off workers, raise prices on other products and potentially close.
“Mark my words, if you pass this, one year from now you will see the current legal users of these products resort back to traditional harmful cigarettes, untaxed marijuana and other more harmful products,” said Marlon Oram Mansour, the association’s president.
Fidel Issa, a resident who spoke during a nearly five-hour public hearing, agreed.
“The ban will create an unregulated black market providing even more access to youth smoking,” Issa said.
Natalie Aljabi said her opposition was about freedom.
“If you are going to be banning flavored nicotine then you might as well ban all smoking in general in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s not fair that you pick and choose which tobacco you want to ban.”
Samantha Hasana said the council doesn’t realize how many businesses will be significantly damaged.
“I know so many of the owners and they will lose their income and won’t be able to support their families,” she said. “Members of our community need to make a living and provide.”
Supporters were equally passionate.
“Data shows that removing flavored vapes from store shelves reduces youth access and use,” said Daria Tomsky. “It also removes the enticing marketing materials that are, by design, more prevalent in Black and Brown communities.”
Jessica Newmyer, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the American Heart Association, said big tobacco is to blame for targeting young people and other vulnerable communities.
“These predatory practices contribute to many of the health disparities that harm our marginalized communities,” she said.
Shirly Weber, California’s secretary of state and a former Assemblymember from San Diego, scoffed at arguments by tobacco supporters that menthol cigarettes are part of the Black cultural experience.
“Menthol cigarettes have been targeted at Black communities for many, many years,” said Weber, who is Black.
Rodger Dougherty, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente, praised the city for approving the ban.
“Flavored tobacco products promote youth initiation of tobacco use and help young occasional smokers become daily smokers by reducing or masking the natural harshness,” he said. “Teen vaping is an epidemic.”
San Diegans Versus Big Tobacco, another nonprofit group, said Monday’s vote was a victory for low-income San Diegans.
“We need to stop this and stop this now because we know big tobacco targets our communities,” said group leader Aida Castaneda, referring to flavored tobacco. “It is no mistake that the majority of these retailers are within our Black and Brown communities.”
In addition to more than 300 cities nationwide that have banned flavored tobacco, the states of New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have passed bans.