A coalition of local business owners financed by the tobacco industry has blocked San Francisco’s new ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco products until voters decide whether to uphold or overturn it.
The ban, adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in June, would have kicked in next year. But the city’s Office of Elections determined earlier this month that the opposition group Let’s Be Real, San Francisco has gathered enough signatures for a ballot referendum, putting the ban on hold until voters decide next year.
“This is a freedom-of-choice issue for responsible adults,” said Jaime Rojas, a spokesman for the coalition.
“We believe that local government officials have overreached and the referendum will allow the voters of San Francisco to make the final decision,” he said.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote next month whether to overturn the ordinance themselves — which is unlikely — or put it before voters, probably in June.
The tobacco ordinance would prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco, including hookah tobacco and small cigars, as well as most vaping products and e-cigarettes.
“San Francisco made history when it passed this ordinance, the strongest restrictions on flavored tobacco products in the nation,” said Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF).
According to a report from the City Controller’s Office of Economic Analysis, 35 percent of the cigarettes sold in San Francisco are menthol and would be subject to the ban.
Rojas said he believes retailers would lose about $50 million in local tobacco sales annually under the ordinance.
Vivian New, co-owner of SF Smoke N’ Vape Shop on Fisherman’s Wharf, estimated that the ban would drive down her profits by 30 to 40 percent.
New, 22, said she has “never laid my lips on a cigarette.” Nonetheless, she opposes restrictions on the kinds of tobacco products her customers can buy because “it’s part of [their] rights.”
Let’s Be Real, San Francisco describes itself as a coalition of “concerned citizens supporting freedom of choice, adult consumers, community leaders and neighborhood small businesses.”
But campaign filing statements for the last half of July show only one donor: R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. of Winston-Salem, N.C., which gave more than $685,000 to the effort.
David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, said the company is proud to be a part of the coalition and sees the referendum campaign “as an opportunity to educate the citizens of San Francisco on the negative impacts that this [ordinance] can have.”
The industry giant manufactures Newport, the nation’s leading menthol brand, which would be banned under the ordinance.
“It’s just a complete hoax,” Glantz said. “This organization that’s putting itself out as a bunch of free-thinking concerned local citizens is actually just a front for the tobacco companies.”
Supervisor Malia Cohen, who sponsored the tobacco measure, called the opposition referendum “a ridiculous attempt to put profit over people’s health.” She said R.J. Reynolds is attacking the legislation “because they know it is strong and that people will stop smoking.”
Flavored tobacco and menthol cigarettes, including Newport, the No. 2 cigarette brand in the nation, are popular with young people and minorities, especially African-Americans.
“Menthol is an especially pernicious additive,” Glantz said, since it interacts with nicotine to make cigarettes easier to smoke and all tobacco products more addictive.
Miriam Zouzounis, a board member with the Arab American Grocers Association and member of the coalition, insisted that the campaign against the tobacco ordinance started as a grass-roots effort by working-class shop owners and their customers. She said the tobacco industry stepped in only after the ban was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors.
Zouzounis believes the ordinance is a burden for small merchants like her family of immigrants who own Ted’s Market, a corner grocery and sandwich shop south of Market Street.
“Basically it is a redundant policy. There’s laws already on the books to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids,” she said.
She pointed to a law signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown that raised the legal smoking age in California from 18 to 21. Under the new rules, anyone caught giving or selling tobacco products to people under 21 could face misdemeanor charges.
“It’s kind of nonsense,” said Jiries Totah, an auto mechanic who buys Grizzly wintergreen-flavored chewing tobacco from Ted’s Market. “I’m 27. I pay my taxes and I do what I’m supposed to do as a citizen. How can someone tell me I can’t purchase a legal product?”
Zouzounis and other business owners say city officials failed to consult with them or consider amendments that addressed their concerns. The ordinance also gives out-of-state businesses that sell online an advantage over brick-and-mortar shops in the city, she said.
“You can buy these products they’re trying to ban online and get them delivered straight to your address in SF, and we know that an online check of an ID is not fail-proof,” she said.
But advocates of the ban say these arguments are diversions from the real point, which is to reduce tobacco consumption and improve health.
They vow to fight to keep the ordinance in place.
“We’ve seen this group pop up out of nowhere,” said Valerie Yerger, an associate professor of health policy at UCSF. “Obviously it’s a concerted effort that’s getting a lot of support from R.J. Reynolds to confuse the issues.”