San Jose poised to ban flavored tobacco
The San Jose City Council is considering banning flavored tobacco products. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Flavored tobacco may soon be a thing of the past in San Jose.

In September, the City Council will consider ending the sale of flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-juices and menthol cigarettes. The city plans to exempt hookah to align with state regulations.

Dr. John Maa, board member of the American Heart Association, said with colorful packaging complete with cartoon characters and flavors such as bubble gum, candy and grape, flavored tobacco is designed to be enticing and is increasing youth tobacco use.

“The tobacco industry continues to lure kids with flavored products,” he told San José Spotlight, “and today’s young people are the next generation of smokers.”

San Jose Councilmember Pam Foley is leading the issue locally.

“It’s important for our city to do everything we possibly can to ensure our children do not become addicted to e-cigarette products,” Foley said. “It is dangerous for our children’s long-term health.”

If the city passes a law banning the sale of flavored tobacco, it would take effect 30 to 60 days after the vote, said Vice Mayor Chappie Jones.

According to a survey by Santa Clara County Public Health, nearly one in three local teens have tried e-cigarettes, and one in eight currently use them.

The survey also found eight out of 10 San Jose tobacco retailers sell flavored tobacco products and almost a quarter sell them to underage youth.

Jen Grand-Lejano, spokesperson for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the group wants flavored products targeted at youth and communities of color out of San Jose stores. She said flavoring masks the harshness of tobacco and creates a perception that it’s safer.

“With 90% of adult smokers starting by age 18, this isn’t an issue of adult choice; it’s really a predatory industry taking advantage of youth who become addicted,” she said. “It’s the only legal product sold that when used as directed kills half of its users.”

Cabr Albanna, owner of Smoke Shop on Camden Avenue, said a ban on flavored tobacco could destroy his business. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Opponents of the proposed flavored tobacco ban are concerned about the drop in sales and income it could cause.

Cabr Albanna, owner of Smoke Shop on Camden Avenue, said he makes a small profit margin and if the ban goes through it may destroy his business.

“I don’t know to stay or go if they do that,” Albanna said. “It’s very hard. I pray it’s not banned.”

A manager of another San Jose tobacco store, who asked not to be named, said the City Council is “going to do what they want to do” and “doesn’t care what happens to us.”

Foley said she is supportive of small businesses, but if products are adversely impacting the health and well-being of kids, the city needs to intervene.

Jones is in favor of banning flavored tobacco, but he said the City Council will have to consider how it would affect mom and pop minimarts and smaller stores.

“We just have to weigh the impact to small businesses versus the social costs of selling flavored tobacco,” Jones said, noting an additional concern of whether the ban would infringe on adults’ personal choices. “That’s going to be a hard decision.”

There’s also the issue of the tobacco industry targeting specific communities.

Although there are tobacco retailers countywide, there is a higher concentration in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of low-income residents or people of color, according to Santa Clara County Public Health. 

“Menthol cigarettes are cheaper in Black communities,” Grand-Lejano said. “We also see the use of tobacco go up for some Asian American populations and that’s not by accident.”

In California, 70% of Black adults who smoke consume menthols compared with 18% of white adults, according to the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Vanessa Marvin, co-chair of the Tobacco Free Coalition of Santa Clara County, said it’s long past time for San Jose to take action.

“Kids will keep getting hooked every single day in San Jose,” Marvin said. “There needs to be a line drawn when it comes to protecting our kids and communities of color.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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