San Francisco Passes Ban on E-Cigarette Sales, Distribution

2 min
Jeremy Wong smokes an e-cigarette at The Vaping Buddha on January 23, 2018 in South San Francisco, California.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to ban the sale and distribution of e-cigarettes in the city on Tuesday. The city is the corporate home of Juul Labs, the biggest producer of e-cigarettes in the country.

The ordinance would make the sale of e-cigarettes illegal in brick-and-mortar stores. It would also prohibit online sales when shipping to San Francisco addresses. The ban is accompanied by another ordinance that prevents the manufacture, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes on San Francisco property.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera co-authored the ordinance, and celebrated the final vote.

"This is a decisive step to help prevent another generation of San Francisco children from becoming addicted to nicotine," he said. "This temporary moratorium wouldn’t be necessary if the federal government had done its job. E-cigarettes are a product that, by law, are not allowed on the market without FDA review. For some reason, the FDA has so far refused to follow the law. If the federal government is not going to act, San Francisco will."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has ten days to sign the legislation, which she has said she will do. The laws will take effect seven months from that date, in early 2020.

Juul responded to the final vote in a written statement to media, saying the ban will cause new challenges for the city.

"This full prohibition will drive former adult smokers who successfully switched to vapor products back to deadly cigarettes, deny the opportunity to switch for current adult smokers, and create a thriving black market instead of addressing the actual causes of underage access and use," wrote Juul spokesman Ted Kwong.

Under federal law, the minimum age to buy tobacco products is 18 years old. In California, however, that age is 21. Despite this, use of e-cigarettes, or “vaping,” has skyrocketed among teenagers nationally.

Last year, one in five high school seniors reported vaping in the past month. That’s almost double the number who reported vaping the year before. Even eighth graders are vaping in record numbers.

These increases come after years of declines in teenagers smoking traditional cigarettes.

Public health officials are concerned about the rising number of teenagers using e-cigarettes, as nicotine can harm a young person’s developing brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that young people who vape may be more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes.

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San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, who co-wrote the city's ordinance, said he’s disgusted with Juul and similar companies, who he said are “putting profits before the health of young people, and people in general.”

“We spent a few decades fighting big tobacco in the form of cigarettes,” Walton said. “Now we have to do it again in the form of e-cigarettes.”

Walton said even with the tobacco age limit, vaping devices are commonly confiscated from students in the city’s middle and high schools.

The second ordinance, which prevents the manufacture, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes on City property, takes direct aim at Juul Labs, which leases space from the city on San Francisco’s Pier 70. The ordinance is not retroactive, so it would not remove Juul from the company’s current space, but it would prevent other e-cigarette makers from renting city property in the future. In a statement, Kwong, the Juul spokesperson, wrote that regardless, the company does not “manufacture, distribute or sell our product from this space.”

Juul’s vaping device was introduced in 2015. It’s small, sleek and discrete, looking similar to a flash drive. The company now controls 70 percent of the vaping market.

In a statement, Juul Labs said they share the city’s goal of keeping e-cigarettes away from young people. They said they’ve made it harder for underage buyers to purchase Juul off their website, and have shut down Juul accounts on Facebook and Instagram.

The company also argues, the prohibition "of vapor products for all adults in San Francisco will not effectively address underage use and will leave cigarettes on shelves as the only choice for adult smokers, even though they kill 40,000 Californians every year.”

Walton doesn’t buy that argument, however. He said it's simply, “trading one nicotine addiction for another.” What’s more, he’s concerned that for every adult that might benefit, dozens of young people could become addicted.

San Francisco resident Jay Friedman thinks the complete e-cigarette ban goes too far. The software engineer smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for twenty years, and smoking e-cigarettes has reduced his regular cigarette habit to two to three a day. He said he feels better physically.

Friedman supported a ban on flavored tobacco that city voters passed last year.

“I feel like it was good to get rid of the fruit flavors for kids,” he said, “but this feels like maybe a step too far.”

Friedman said if e-cigarettes are banned, he would try to quit nicotine altogether. But, “there would be a point in a moment of weakness where I'd just end up buying a pack of smokes again and then it's just a slippery slope from there.”

Ted's Market is a convenience store in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. Miriam Zouzounis is a third-generation owner of the store. She said the e-cigarette ban will hurt the market's bottom line.
Ted's Market is a convenience store in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. Miriam Zouzounis is a third-generation owner of the store. She said the e-cigarette ban will hurt the market's bottom line. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Small businesses in San Francisco are concerned the ban will hurt their bottom line.

Miriam Zouzounis and her family own convenience store Ted’s Market near downtown San Francisco. She said e-cigarettes are an "anchor" product, meaning they draw people into the store.

“When people come and want to purchase something at the store and we don't have that exact item that they want, they're not going to buy the rest of the items that they might on that trip: a drink or a sandwich,” Zouzounis said.

She said sales from e-cigarettes account for at least $200 to $300 a day. As a board member of the Arab American Grocers Association, she believes laws like this mostly affect immigrant-owned businesses.

Abbey Chaitin, 15, is a San Francisco resident. She isn’t drawn to using e-cigarettes, she said, because she has seen peers her become addicted to them.

“I’ll see them in class fidgeting,” Chaitin said, “they need it to focus, to function.”

Chaitin thinks regardless of a ban, young people will still get their hands on e-cigarettes, "People my age can find a way around that if they really need to."

Meanwhile, Juul is collecting signatures for a November ballot initiative to override the ban.

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