San Jose has put the kibosh on flavored tobacco to reduce teen vaping.
Starting Friday, San Jose’s 600-plus smoke shops can no longer sell flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes, including menthol flavored products. The ban, which the San Jose City Council unanimously passed last September, will apply to any tobacco products with an artificial or natural flavor, aroma, herb or spice.
The new policy also raises the age to purchase tobacco products in San Jose from 18 to 21, aligning with state laws.
Shisha, Hookah and premium cigars will still be available, but smoke shop owners say these new rules could put them out of business.
About 1,200 smoke shops sell tobacco products in Santa Clara County, with more than half located in San Jose, said Nicole Coxe, tobacco free communities program manager with Santa Clara County Public Health.
“San Jose’s action to restrict the sale of these flavored products will have a tremendous impact on protecting kids from lifelong addiction,” Coxe told San José Spotlight.
But San Jose businesses are worried about their bottom lines.
Younis Helgurbani, owner of Santa Clara Smoke Shop in downtown San Jose, is considering becoming an Uber driver because of the new restrictions. He said flavored tobacco makes up 40% of his business in two of his family’s stores and almost 60% in his third store.
“A lot of businesses are going to shut down,” he told San José Spotlight. “It might not be in the first month, because these things take time. But if they can’t afford to pay their rent or their employees, there’s no reason to stay open.”
Helgurbani told San José Spotlight he has four children to support and a mortgage to pay. The city should care more about what this will do to business owners and lost tax revenue, he said.
San Jose isn’t the only place to take such measures. Santa Clara County has had a ban on flavored tobacco products in effect since 2016 in its unincorporated areas. An exemption that allowed adult-only tobacco stores to sell flavored tobacco products was removed in 2019.
Oscar Carrillo, a San Jose division manager in code enforcement, said the city worked closely with county public health on the ban, receiving a grant of $120,000 to reimburse staffing and resources for research and mailings to retailers.
“We did our best to have a fair ordinance that mirrors the state regulations,” Carrillo told San José Spotlight. He said the city’s tobacco retail ordinance was outdated.
The city’s Code Enforcement Division will enforce the ban. Sellers of banned products could be fined up to $2,500 per day and/or have their tobacco license revoked.
John Tokhi, manager of Houdini’s Smoke Shop, told San José Spotlight the flavored tobacco ban would affect 30% to 40% of sales. He said the store may start selling more hemp products to make up for the loss in sales.
“We have a lot of regular customers who just come for that,” Tokhi said. “There have already been a lot of complaints by customers.”
But Coxe said nine out of 10 people who become addicted to smoking tobacco start as adolescents. Studies show that 93% of high school students in Santa Clara County who report using tobacco used with flavored products.
Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics at Stanford, said flavors are a driving force for adolescent use of tobacco. She said teachers report half the students in high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools use vaping products.
Halpern-Felsher said the flavors have chemicals such as aldehyde or diacetyl, which gives a buttery flavor to the product. These additives are harmful and aldehydes cause lung and heart damage.
Councilmember Pam Foley, who helped lead the ban effort, said Big Tobacco has systematically targeted young people by selling addictive flavored tobacco products.
“Six months ago, we voted to ban these flavored tobacco products. We said the long-term health of our young people is important,” Foley told San José Spotlight. “Our efforts tell Big Tobacco to stay away from our kids.”