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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approves ordinance banning the sale of flavored tobacco products

Community discussion ensues surrounding public health benefits and potential repercussions for marginalized communities

By LEVI GOLDSTEIN city@theaggie.org

On Jan. 11 and Jan. 25, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors met to discuss an amendment to the County Code Chapter 4.07 introducing a ban on all flavored tobacco sales in the county. 

A similar ordinance went into effect in the city of Sacramento on Jan. 1, 2020. This new county-wide ordinance would expand the ban to Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom, Citrus Heights, Galt and Isleton. 

Bans on flavored tobacco sales are meant to curtail the circulation of tobacco products among youth, who are more attracted to flavored products, and prevent disproportionate use of mentholated cigarettes in Black communities, according to Jose Mendez, the Code Enforcement Manager for the City of Sacramento. 

“In certain parts or zip codes of the city, where there’s a high minority population, marketers or wholesalers or distributors will reduce the price of mentholated cigarettes to encourage purchase of those products,” Mendez said. “The impetus was to strengthen regulation to reduce the access of tobacco products to minors, but in addition to that, there was a push to eliminate the sale of mentholated cigarettes to reduce access to certain populations that were impacted most.”

The ban was highly contested among county residents. Some, including health professionals, parents and school teachers, expressed their support and gratitude for the ordinance through public comment at the Board of Supervisors meetings. However, other residents were concerned that it would have an unintentional negative impact on marginalized communities and business owners despite the Board’s good intentions. 

Many feared that it would lead to over-policing in Black neighborhoods and increased legal action against Black tobacco users due to a history in the U.S. of disproportionate punishment for drug crimes

The use of flavored tobacco in the city of Sacramento was not criminalized with the ban, according to Mendez. The ordinance only prohibits the sale, not the use, of flavored tobacco. 

“There was a large push from advocates not to penalize the users for flavored tobacco,” Mendez said. “There was concern that a regulatory agency or a public safety agency would then cite the users, and that’s not what they wanted to achieve, and the city agreed with that. […] We only regulate and cite the business that is ultimately selling the product.” 

Despite taking care to ensure that users are not punished at an increased rate because of the ban, police are still very involved in the enforcement of tobacco sale laws in the city.

“We conduct sting operations with the police department,” Mendez said. “We will have a decoy, usually a person under the age of 21, go into a retailer and attempt to purchase a product. […] We incorporated the prohibition of flavored tobacco into our routine inspection process. […] We look to ensure that retailers are not selling flavored tobacco. If they do, their license is suspended.”

These undercover inspections of retailers are conducted at least twice a year, according to Mendez. 

Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli addressed the concerns, saying during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Jan. 25 that the ban is “not meant to be punitive.” In the meetings, it was unclear what the methods of enforcement would be across the county. 

Another contestation was that the flavored tobacco ban would also ban the sale of hookah. During public comment, residents spoke about the cultural value of hookah lounges. Many of them are owned by immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The flavored tobacco sales ban would most likely close the majority of these businesses owned by people of color, taking away an important social destination and cultural practice for marginalized communities in the county, as was discussed during public comment. 

Other small business owners were also worried about the financial ramifications of the ban.

“They were concerned that people would start driving to places outside of the city to buy flavored tobacco, and therefore would impact their sales,” Mendez said. “Not just the sale of tobacco, but any auxiliary sales. […] Their biggest concern was the loss of revenue.”

Other residents were anxious that the ban would redirect sales from convenience stores, where flavored tobacco products are better controlled and regulated, to an underground black market. However, this hasn’t been observed anywhere else where a similar ban went into effect. 

“A couple stakeholders, mostly wholesalers that sell flavored tobacco, indicated that all they would do is they would push flavored tobacco into the black market or underground,” Mendez said. “In talking to the city of Oakland and other cities that had adopted a similar prohibition; they didn’t experience that. And it’s not something that we’ve experienced either.”

Alternative options to curtail the use of tobacco were suggested in the board meeting, including rehabilitation and recovery programs, education and outreach and regulations of targeted advertising and price reductions in marginalized communities. Residents believe that these would better address substance use issues without unintended consequences. 

No such programs have been introduced in the city of Sacramento. 

“We feel that our focus should be the retailer, not the person that’s ultimately using the product,” Mendez said. “We also feel that maybe some of that should be left to the school district. We don’t feel like it’s really our role.” 

Mendez also commented that if there were a grant available, the city wouldn’t be opposed to working with non-profit organizations to establish rehabilitation programs or increase outreach with schools and health professionals. However, it is not currently one of the city’s main goals or interests. 

Sacramento County does have publicly funded substance use services, but no updates or amendments to the programs that address tobacco use among minors and marginalized communities specifically were discussed as alternative options during the Board of Supervisors meetings.

In the state elections of November 2022, a ballot proposition will be put to a citizen vote that, if passed, would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products across the entire state of California. Sacramento Board of Supervisors members were asked to wait for the verdict of this vote instead of imposing a county ban. County residents said this would allow California citizens to decide on the matter instead of a board, and prevent tobacco users from going to another county to obtain products. 

Despite the upcoming election and the many concerns that were brought to the board meetings, the ordinance to ban sales of flavored tobacco in Sacramento county passed on Jan. 25. It will go into effect officially on July 25, allowing retailers a six month period to destock flavored products in preparation to comply. 

The flavored tobacco sales ban in the city of Sacramento has been functioning as intended since it was enacted. According to Mendez, the city has seen a compliance rate of approximately 98% from retailers. 

Because of similar successes elsewhere, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and county residents are hopeful that the new ordinance will be a step in the right direction for county-wide public health and for curbing the teen vaping epidemic. Some, however, are still wary of the potential consequences. The actual impact of the ordinance will become evident in the months following the implementation of the ban. 

Written by: Levi Goldstein — city@theaggie.org

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