City Council approves flavored tobacco ban

Concerns about the rising number of youth attracted to candy and fruit varieties of e-cigarettes overrules adult-use freedom

Bottles of flavored vape juice line the shelves at Topic Vape and Smoke on Fulton Avenue. At least, for now.

Bottles of flavored vape juice line the shelves at Topic Vape and Smoke on Fulton Avenue. At least, for now.

Photo by Ken Magri

Pushing back against protests from the vape industry and local merchants, the Sacramento City Council passed a ban on flavored e-cigarette cartridges and other flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, within city limits starting January 1, 2020.

On Tuesday, April 16, a 7-1 vote outlawed all candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarette juices such as “Gummy Bear” or “Unicorn Pop!” commonly used in vape devices and quite popular among youth.

“We’ve got really powerful testimony from members of our community who say they are being targeted, that they are disproportionately affected,” said Councilman Steve Hansen.

“Evidence has shown that flavored tobacco products lure kids into smoking tobacco,” Councilman Eric Guerra wrote SN&R in an email. “What the council is banning directly leads to addiction in children.”

The flavor ban was combined with a reform of the city’s tobacco retail licensing policy to reduce the disproportionate licensing of tobacco stores “that congregate in places where people are vulnerable,” Hansen said.

But not everyone was in favor of the ban.

“History has taught us that prohibition does not work. What does work is education,” said Councilman Larry Carr, the only “no” vote on the measure.

Local tobacco distributor Samarjit Malmi also spoke against the proposal, telling the council that tobacco stores work to keep out minors. He cited a California Department of Public Health report that found a reduction in tobacco sales to minors, from 10.3% in 2016 to 5.7% in 2017.

At Tonic Vape and Smoke on Fulton Avenue, just outside the city limits, owner Samer Mansour said the ban will penalize adults for youth behavior and the sins of tobacco companies.

“If this gentleman here wants to quit smoking, and there is a flavor ban, then the only thing I can sell him is tobacco flavor,” Mansour said as he helped a new customer who wants to quit cigarettes set up a vape unit. “Most people don’t want tobacco flavor, because they are staying away from that smell.”

Mansour pointed to his flavored nicotine bottles. “Eighty percent of our sales are this shelf, right here,” he said, arguing that banning flavors will force vape shops to close.

Sacramento’s move is part of growing national concern about the emergence of vaping.

“We didn’t predict what I now believe is an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers,” former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release last September.

Gottlieb cited the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which showed a 78% increase in the use of e-cigarettes among 12- to 19-year-olds. The rise in use from 11.7% to 20.8% meant that more than 3 million American high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018.

He blamed flavored nicotine juices that mimic candy and other child-friendly tastes, and put the spotlight on five major vape juice manufacturers, telling them to fix the problem. In March, the FDA moved on its own to prevent gas stations and convenience stores from selling flavored vape products.

Tobacco companies own four of the five largest nicotine juice manufacturers. The fifth is San Francisco’s Juul Labs, which sells a sleek, stylish vape device and flavored cartridges that resemble a long, USB flash drive that has achieved cult-like popularity among students. YouTube videos demonstrate how to refill the empty Juul pods with other flavored nicotine juices.

A Stanford University study published in January found that Juul’s “advertising imagery in its first 6 months on the market was patently youth oriented.” It also said Juul used “compensated influencers and affiliates” on social networks to boost popularity.

Teenage smoking is at its lowest point ever; 73% said in the CDC survey that they have never tried a vape product. But for those who have, the most common of many listed reasons (7.6%) was that “they are available in flavors like mint and candy.”

“Flavors are a complex issue,” said Josh Raffel, Juul’s vice president of communications. “We believe flavors play a critical role in switching adult smokers from cigarettes; we see the results in our own behavioral research.”

Nevertheless, Raffel said Juul has stopped distributing “non-tobacco/non-menthol-based flavored pods” to traditional retail stores, allowing online sales only. This allows Juul to continue selling to adults through use of a third-party online age-verification system.