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Redwood City flavored tobacco ban could come as early as April 2022

Some argued that hookah shouldn’t be considered the same way as other flavored tobacco products
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A ban on flavored tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, will likely go into effect in April 2022, following a discussion of a new city ordinance on Monday evening.

During the November 22 city council meeting, members discussed the dangers of flavored tobacco as a “starter” product that can lead to addiction, particularly among children and young adults.

“I just want to say how happy I am that we are finally here,” said Vice Mayor Giselle Hale, who spoke strongly in favor of a ban. “Schools aren’t coming to us about alcohol. They are coming to us about tobacco...They are coming to us about the particular ways in which big tobacco are using these products to attract children.”

A second reading of the ordinance will happen on December 20, and, if adopted, the ban will go into effect on April 1, 2022. Failure to comply with the ordinance, which prohibits the sale of flavored tobacco and electronic cigarettes as well as the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, will result in fines or suspended licenses. 

The council also voted 6-1, with council member Lissette Espinoza-Garnica dissenting, to revisit the ordinance in November of next year should it pass final approval next month. 

The proposed ban is several years in the making. Introduced initially during an October 2019 council meeting by former member Shelly Masur, the possibility of a local ban on flavored tobacco products was discussed again during a study session the following year. Since then, city staff has been working on a draft ordinance, considering factors such as enforceability and exceptions for certain businesses. 

“Tobacco has a well-documented history of negative health and social impacts on individuals and communities,” said assistant city manager Alex Khojikian during his staff report. “Flavored tobacco is especially harmful and often targeted to youths and young adults,” who are three times more likely to use e-cigarettes than adults over the age of 30, he said. 

Khojikian added that, from 2017-2019, “electronic cigarette use increased 135% in high schools and 218% in middle schools.”

At least 13 members of the public came out to share their thoughts on the ordinance, including Jen Grand-Lejano and Blythe Young, who both thanked the council for taking up the issue and asked for even stricter enforcement and regulations. Grand-Lejano asked the city to remove the exemption for hookah lounges, citing research that many young people “learned about flavored shisha by first seeing a hookah bar in their community.” 

Shawneece Stevenson, a local mother of three and project manager for the Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council's Tobacco Education and Policy Initiative, also supported the ordinance. She described vaping as an issue that affects the African American community in particular and expressed concern about flavored tobacco as being especially enticing to young, susceptible people.  

But not all were in favor. A speaker who was introduced as Claudia acknowledged the problems with the vaping epidemic. But as someone who works with local retailers, she said she has never, and would never, sell to minors. 

“Addressing the vaping epidemic should not lead our local government to overextend and prohibit the sale of all other flavored tobacco products,” she said. “Banning the sale of all the traditional flavored tobacco products will shift sales from law-abiding retailers in a regulated environment to an illicit market or a black market.”

Claudia added that the pandemic had already taken a toll on local retailers and worried that a prohibition might not only drive consumers to unregulated markets but it might also result in lost jobs and store closures. 

Mohammed, who introduced himself as the owner of a vape shop in Redwood City, shared her concerns and echoed a request to hold off until the statewide vote next November.

“In other cities, they think they did a good job by banning flavored tobacco, but the reality is, all the stores, they have the products in their shelves,” he said. “It’s not going to make sense until it’s banned in the whole state.”

Despite approval from most council members, several took issue with the inclusion of hookah in the ordinance, including council members Espinoza-Garnica and Michael Smith, who argued that hookah shouldn’t be considered the same way as other flavored tobacco products. 

“We were conflating two issues,” Espinoza-Garnica told the Pulse after the meeting. “The rise of abuse of e-cigarettes and flavored cigarettes with a very old practice of smoking hookah."

As written, the ordinance would grandfather in several existing hookah bars while denying approval to any new licenses. Espinoza-Garnica described this move as culturally insensitive and reflective of their fellow council members’ “Western” bias.

“It’s a double standard that we’re going to outlaw hookah, but we’re not going to outlaw bars,” they said. “The members on council, they drink wine...are we gonna outlaw bars because that’s the first step into alcoholism?”

The ordinance comes in the wake of SB-793, a statewide prohibition on the sale and distribution of flavored tobacco products (excluding those intended for hookah, premium cigars, or loose-leaf tobacco) passed by the California legislature in August 2020. Though signed into law last year, the bill has yet to be implemented and, following a referendum campaign, faces a possible repeal during the November 2022 statewide election. 

Cities throughout the state had already begun imposing their own local restrictions. In June 2018, the county Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products in unincorporated areas. That fall, the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Surgeon General called the increase in the use of flavored tobacco products (e-cigarettes, vapes, etc.) an “epidemic” among youth and young adults. 

Since then, in San Mateo County alone, the cities of East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, San Mateo and South San Francisco have all limited the sale of electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco. 

For their part, Espinoza-Garnica argued that banning products altogether was “far too authoritarian an approach” that could potentially backfire. They disagreed with “this idea that if we want to address substance abuse, we have to just take it away,” adding that prohibitions can make drugs “more taboo, more scary and more enticing.” The city should focus on preventative measures instead, they said, like providing people with education and resources. 

Still, others like Mayor Diane Howard joined Hale in championing the new ordinance.

“I am a nurse and I believe in the science and the damage that tobacco causes,” she said. “I took care of patients with terrible diseases…[who] always said to me, ‘I wish I didn’t start when I was young cuz I couldn’t quit when I was older.’

Expressing her support for the ban, she added: “It breaks my heart when I hear about a patch being put on a small child to try to curb the appetite of tobacco, knowing the damage that it does.”

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Leah Worthington is the lead reporter at the Redwood City Pulse, a local news site dedicated to providing accurate and timely news to the Redwood City community. Leah can be reached at lworthington@rwcpulse.com, on Twitter, and by phone at 650-888-3794. To read more stories about Redwood City, subscribe to our daily Express newsletter on rwcpulse.com.