Berkeley Bans Sale of E-Cigarettes and Flavored Tobacco Near Parks, Schools

One of many store owners who pleaded with Berkeley's City Council not to adopt a wide-ranging ban on tobacco sales. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

Berkeley is moving ahead to ban the sale of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products within 1,000 feet of parks or schools.

But after hearing from numerous business owners Tuesday night who said they’d fold without tobacco sales, the City Council dialed back a proposal to ban all tobacco sales in those areas.

The original proposal would have affected 63 stores, out of 84 that sell tobacco in the city. About a dozen store owners told the City Council their families’ livelihoods would be threatened by a ban on tobacco sales.

Shop owners waiting to testify as Berkeley City Council weighed strict limits on tobacco sales in the city.
Shop owners waiting to testify as Berkeley City Council weighed strict limits on tobacco sales in the city. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

“It will shut me down,” said Zeaad Handoush, who has owned Whelan’s Smoke Shop, on Bancroft Way across the street from UC Berkeley, for the past 15 years.

“We came here to Berkeley to do business," Handoush said. "We’ve done business exactly like you’ve told us you’d like it to be run. I’ve never sold to minors ... so I’m up here to defend myself for doing everything right.”

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“How am I to raise my two kids? Do you want me to become homeless? How can I live?” asked Ziada Araya, who came to the United States in 1979 as a refugee from Eritrea and now owns U.S. Liquor at Ashby Avenue and Sacramento Street.

The shop owners were responding to a barrage of public comment in favor of more stringent restrictions on tobacco sales. Numerous people stated that 80 percent of smokers start before they turn 18 years old and that easy access to tobacco products helps lead to addiction.

The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce’s Kirsten MacDonald said most of the 63 stores that would be affected by a 1,000-foot ban get more than half their business from tobacco products.

“This ordinance will not stop smoking," said MacDonald. "It will only cause job loss, tax loss to the city and exacerbate the problem of food deserts in neighborhoods that depend on their existence."

The Berkeley NAACP’s Carol McGruder, who also serves as co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said she sympathizes with store owners -- up to a point.

"I frankly feel very sorry for them because they are decent people, they are not rich, they are trying to support their families," said McGruder. "But I feel more sorry of the people who become addicted to tobacco, which usually starts under the age of 18."

“We’re weighing the health of our kids against the livelihood of these families,” said Councilwoman Linda Maio, one of several council members who referenced their own personal and family battles with smoking.

Councilman Max Anderson, who says he quit smoking 41 years ago and has worked as a respiratory therapist, reluctantly voted along with seven other council members to send the original proposal to the city manager for more work.

“The right to poison people, whether it’s been legal for years or not, is not something you want to sustain, add to, temporize about, and back away from controls on,” Anderson said. “How can it be that the health of this community is less important that somebody making money?”

A ban on all tobacco products being sold near parks or schools will likely include a grace period of one to two years.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said a 600-foot buffer, in line with regulations for the location of medical marijuana businesses, might be more appropriate. City staff said that would affect only 31 of the city's 84 businesses that sell tobacco.

“I’m very concerned about affecting 63 businesses in this town, and the hundreds of workers whose lives would be impacted by doing that," she said. "Although there’s no doubt in the mind that tobacco is bad, I just think that’s a little extreme.”

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There was unanimous contempt on the council for flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes, which are seen as gateway products for children. Mayor Tom Bates instructed city staff to see if those products can be banned citywide, even beyond the 1,000-foot buffer.

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