UPDATE: San Jose bans sale of flavored tobacco
San Jose Councilmember Pam Foley is calling for a ban of flavored tobacco products in the city to protect the health of children. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

San Jose is the largest city in California to ban flavored tobacco products in an effort to curb nicotine addiction among children.

The City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-juices and menthol cigarettes. It will not make it a crime for individuals to possess such products.

“Cotton candy, fruit punch, salt water taffy, gummy bear, bubble gum, those are flavors that should be candies and not cigarettes,” said Councilmember Pam Foley, who’s leading the effort. “These are the things that are killing our kids, or attracting our children to become addicted as early as middle school.”

According to a Santa Clara County survey, nearly one in local three 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 products, and almost a quarter sell them to underage youth.

The sale of hookah and flavored cigars is not included in the plan, which also raises the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21—aligning with the state.

“It is a very important issue to me, and something that we need to address,” Councilmember David Cohen said. “As I mentioned yesterday, it’s not something that can be addressed by schools and just by parents, but something that the city has to partner with to help address.”

The city estimates the ban will directly affect 18 businesses, and will require 44 other retailers to register with a program that regulates the sale of tobacco products in San Jose. Local businesses have until July 2022 to stop selling flavored tobacco products.

The new law also bans new tobacco retailers within 1,000 feet of schools and within 500 feet of other tobacco shops.

Most locals want flavored tobacco gone, with three in five San Jose voters strongly supporting the ban, a recent survey shows.

More than 70 residents, including teachers and students, spoke at the meeting, with a majority in support of the ban.

“I have seen firsthand youth who use flavored tobacco products in my own home, at my kids’ high school and at the middle school where I teach,” said teacher Marin Lopez. “Tobacco companies or retailers should not be allowed to profit off of risking our kids’ health… It is urgent that we remove these products that are easily accessible to San Jose youth.”

Health experts also emphasized the importance of banning the sale of flavored tobacco in San Jose.

“It’s become clear that menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are the main factor of death and disease in the Black community,” said Dr. Phil Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “Let’s be clear that this has been going on for some 30 years, and you have the chance to stop it here.”

Tobacco retailers in the county are concentrated in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of low-income residents or people of color, according to Santa Clara County Public Health.

Some residents said San Jose isn’t going far enough, pushing the city to also include hookah and other flavored products in the ban.

“It is also vitally important that you remove the proposed exemptions for hookah, premium cigars and loose-leaf tobacco,” resident Lizze Velton said. “Many Bay Area jurisdictions, including Santa Clara County itself have comprehensive policies with no exemptions. Why choose to do less?”

Councilmember Matt Mahan said the city should be mindful when it comes to hookah, and that smoking hookah at an adults-only lounge is “a very different social and cultural use case than simply buying something labeled as a hookah product in a retail establishment and can very easily get handed off to a child.”

Local business owners pushed back on the ban, saying it won’t help solve the problem of children smoking.

“What you are doing is not helping the kids’ epidemic with vaping, but it’s going to make it worse,” business owner Nam Nguyen said, citing a rise in cigarette use in San Francisco after passing a similar ban in 2017. “Business owners are not the bad guys… We only cater to adults. Let the state and the government decide on these policies.”

Business owners told the city in a recent virtual meeting that the ban of such products will hurt them financially. Out of 121 tobacco shops that responded to a city survey, 82% oppose the ban.

Santa Clara County, as well as cities such as Gilroy, Palo Alto, Los Gatos and Cupertino have passed similar bans on flavored tobacco products.

“This ordinance isn’t perfect, but the goal is to get it passed,” Foley said, adding the city will look at it again in a year. “Because frankly, Big Tobacco is not going to stop with this, they will figure out some other distribution system, some other way to reach our kids—and we have to be prepared for that and be prepared to act quickly.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on twitter. 

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