Will San Francisco's Ban on Flavored Tobacco Spark a National Trend?

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Rhiannon Griffith-Bowman smokes an e-cigarette at Digital Ciggz in San Rafael, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Despite a multimillion dollar campaign by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, San Francisco will soon implement the most comprehensive restrictions on e-cigarettes in the country. The move is already sparking other cities to follow.

This week's vote on San Francisco's Proposition E was expected to be close, but the measure is passing with nearly 70 percent of the vote. That's an insurmountable lead even though mail-in ballots are still being counted. The ban includes all flavored tobacco products from vaping liquids to menthol cigarettes to flavored hookah.

"You know, I probably would have voted for it too," said Brian Richardson a resident of Los Angeles who owns a Bay Area vaping store. "As much as I like to sell vape liquids at my store in San Francisco, I agree some type of regulation is necessary."

The law goes into effect 10 days after the election is certified, which will likely be sometime in July. If a San Francisco store violates the ban, it could result in the suspension of their tobacco sales permit or further penalties as defined under the city's health code.

Growing Momentum in California


The same week voters passed San Francisco's ban, the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County unanimously passed a similar comprehensive ban that will also remove traditional tobacco products from pharmacies. Supervisor Carole Groom says the measure is about prevention, especially among young people.

"Every day, 2,500 kids try their first cigarette and that's what we're trying to stop," said Groom. "Eighty-one percent of the youth in a recent survey told us that their first cigarette was flavored. That's the kind of thing we're trying to stop with this ordinance."

Several other communities like Oakland, El Cerrito and Palo Alto have similar bans pending, though none are as comprehensive as  the ones in San Francisco and San Mateo County.

City officials like Groom say local initiatives are necessary because there is very little regulation of e-products at the federal level, even though use is increasing. A 2016 report from the U.S. Surgeon General cited a 900 percent increase in the use of e-cigarettes by high school students from 2011 to 2015.

Brian Richardson vaping on a walk just north of Big Sur, California (Andrea Cardenas Kline)

Brian Richardson owns the Vapor Den, a hip, Lower Haight-neighborhood vape shop with low lighting, leather couches and row after row of top-shelf vape liquids. He says he opened his doors in 2012 to help smokers quit.

"We used to act as a center to essentially educate people on the alternatives to smoking," said Richardson, who smoked a pack a day for 25 years. "My customers used to be people trying to kick the habit. But over the years the demographic kept getting younger. Now people in their 20s are just looking for the latest and greatest devices with new flavors."

Manipulative Marketing Ploys to Attract Kids

When Richardson started vaping in 2009, there were only two flavors on the market; menthol and tobacco. Now there's more than 7,000, like cotton candy, apple crumb and watermelon, which are often packaged in brightly colored bottles with clowns and cartoon characters.

"Regulation is necessary today because of the abuse and marketing ploys some of these companies are using to attract kids who may have never smoked a cigarette in their life," said Richardson.

He says his best selling products are made by Juul, which makes liquids with significantly higher amounts of nicotine and which Richardson calls the most abusive company in the business.

"You take a couple of puffs and you actually feel like you're kind of high," said Richardson.

Colorful nicotine-filled pods, pictured on the right, are inserted into the Juul e-cigarette, which educators say looks deceptively like a flash drive, making it harder to identify. (Juul Labs)

He says that even though San Francisco's ban will likely crush sales at the Vapor Den, he plans to stay open. He thinks customers will buy their vaping liquids online but visit his shop when seeking advice on a device or to stock up on batteries and coil replacements.

But many other small shop owners are terrified about the aftermath of the ban.

“Prop E is going to have a huge impact on businesses like mine," said Miriam Zouzounis, a board member of the Arab American Grocers Association, which represents over 400 businesses in San Francisco.  "I fear that many small businesses will close in the wake of its passage." She said the law would disproportionately affect Arab, Sikh and Asian store owners.

An Expensive Fight

The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company spent nearly $13 million blanketing the city in advertisements to stop the ban. The company sells the nation’s best-selling menthol cigarette and popular vaping products called Vuse. Jacob McConnico a spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds, called the vote a setback for tobacco harm-reduction efforts.

"History has shown regulations that go to extremes to limit consumer choice result in unintended consequences, including criminal activity," McConico wrote in an email. He did not respond when asked whether the company planned to sue.

The tobacco industry sued in both New York and Providence, Rhode Island, when those cities passed limited bans on flavored tobacco products, but the industry lost in both cases.

Tobacco Industry Pushes Back

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the ban last year. It was scheduled to go into effect last April, but then an opposition campaign raised enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, which is why the measure was put before voters on Tuesday.

The fight in favor of the ban was primarily funded by a personal $1.8 million donation from Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund contributed a combined total of $500,000.

Advocates Predict a Domino Effect

Matt Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of the primary advocacy organizations behind the San Francisco ban, predicts this is just the first of many bans across the country.

"California repeatedly has been the leader on innovation on tobacco control," said Myers. "And what California does almost always spreads not only across the country, but globally."

San Francisco especially has a history of taking on Big Tobacco. In 1983, the city passed a workplace smoking restriction. Several tobacco companies tried to stop the ordinance by forcing a referendum. But their expensive campaigning efforts failed, as voters upheld the restrictions. The industry lost many similar fights across the country as communities successfully removed smoking from offices.


"San Francisco's ban is really going to be a trendsetter for all over the country," said Stanton Glantz, who heads the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco. "I just came back from an international meeting in South Africa and people were talking about the San Francisco ordinance."