SAN FRANCISCO — A major tobacco company is pouring millions of dollars into a ballot initiative that would repeal the country’s strongest effort yet to ban the sale of flavored tobaccos, which are attracting a whole new generation of users including children and teens.
A $12 million campaign primarily funded by R.J. Reynolds is urging San Francisco voters next Tuesday to reject the city’s ban on selling flavored vaping products, hookah tobacco and menthol cigarettes. The flavored tobacco comes in brightly colored packages and tastes like bubblegum, mango or chicken-and-waffles, which public health advocates say are designed to entice young people.
Anti-tobacco advocates see the massive R.J. Reynolds campaign as a warning shot to other local governments eyeing similar restrictions as concern mounts about the hazards of vaping. The ballot initiative is a key test of attitudes about e-cigarettes and vaping — specifically whether the public will support a new wave of regulations to limit their use.
“This is clearly the most restrictive measure in the country on flavored tobacco,” said Larry Tramutola, a political strategist running the San Francisco campaign in support of the ban. “If this passes, it will have ripple effects around the country.”
With smoking rates at an all-time low, tobacco companies are increasingly banking on e-cigarettes and other flavored products to boost their bottom lines. New players have also entered the vaping market.
While the industry argues the devices help adult smokers kick the habit, public health advocates contend the flavored products are also getting young people to try nicotine products. Studies also show that young people who vape — inhaling a heated vapor instead of smoking cigarettes — are more likely to go on to become smokers. They’re also ingesting some of the same cancer-causing chemicals in regular cigarettes, research shows.
Often a trendsetter on public health, San Francisco’s supervisors unanimously approved the tough flavor ban last year. It was supposed to go into effect in April but was put on hold after R.J. Reynolds, which owns Newport, the top menthol cigarette brand, secured enough signatures to get the repeal initiative on Tuesday’s ballot.
The company has vastly outspent supporters of the ban, who have received funding from billionaire philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The $12 million spent to fight the ban includes both monetary donations and some in-kind services such as consulting and staff time for phone-banks.
The local battle comes as FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is stepping up federal regulation of tobacco and is considering options to regulate flavored products.
That makes the industry all the more eager to stop what’s happening in San Francisco.
The effort to overturn the ban, known as the “No on Proposition E Campaign,” has blanketed the airwaves with ads that appeal to the progressive city’s libertarian streak, framing the ballot measure as a matter of consumer freedom.
The campaign argues that the ban is a government overreach in a state that already raised the smoking age to 21 and banned the sale of these flavored tobacco products to kids. Repeal backers also argue it will hurt small businesses and create a black market for these products.
“San Francisco voters should say enough is enough and adults should be free to make their own consumer choices,” a longtime San Francisco libertarian activist known as Starchild told those gathered at a “No on Prop. E” rally on the steps of City Hall on Thursday — which also happened to be World No Tobacco Day.
Shawn Richard, a San Francisco resident and founder of Brother Against Guns, called the ban “dangerous,” describing a situation in which young people may turn to selling menthol cigarettes on the black market.
“We don’t want the San Francisco police … having the ability to harass young men of color in our communities,” he said, amid supporters holding signs with such saying as “Ban menthol but not all tobacco products? Another black tax?”
R.J. Reynolds, which in addition to Newport owns Vuse vaping products, did not respond to requests for comment.
The tobacco battle in San Francisco is playing out as Gottlieb signals he’ll pursue tougher regulation of e-cigarettes, citing the “troubling reality” they’ve become popular with kids. The agency earlier this year dinged more than 40 retailers for selling e-cigarettes to kids in a sting that targeted Juul e-cigarettes, a popular device resembling a USB thumb drive that’s flooding schools across the country.
Besides San Francisco, other cities have enacted lesser restrictions on flavored tobacco. In Oakland and Santa Clara County, sales of flavored tobacco products are banned everywhere but stores that predominately sell tobacco. Chicago bans flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools. Some other cities, including New York, have exempted menthol products for their bans.
Anti-tobacco activist say fruit and candy flavors are essential to the industry’s mission and future. “The product is designed like a syringe and a needle. You’ve got to get the nicotine in to get the addiction going, and you’ve got to usurp free will,” said Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry scientist who became a whistleblower in the 1990s.
There’s no reliable polling to indicate how San Francisco might vote on Tuesday. But the funding advantage is clearly with No on Prop E campaign, which has raised more than four times as much as public health advocates favoring the ban. About $1.8 million of the $2.3 million raised by supporters of the flavor ban has come from Bloomberg, who has bankrolled other public health campaigns to support soda taxes and smoking bans, among other issues.
The flavor ban has gotten strong pushback from corner shop owners and small business leaders, who warn that their sales will drop steeply if they can no longer carry flavored tobacco products. They also argue that young people are more likely to buy these products online than in stores.
Carlos Solórzano, head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco, supports enforcing the existing laws — but doesn’t want the new one. “If a shop owner sells to a minor, fine them,” he said. “We all can agree this [nicotine addiction] is a health issue that needs to be dealt with, but not in this way.”
Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, supports vaping as way to wean smokers off more dangerous combustible cigarettes. But he admits that siding with the tobacco industry by voting against the measure could be tough for voters.
Still, he said, “I would hope the majority of San Francisco voters would see through the ideological war that’s going on and not try to see a brand new prohibition go into effect.”
Tramutola, the Yes on Prop E campaign manager who previously led successful efforts to tax sugary drinks, said he believes the vote will be close, despite San Francisco’s reputation as a healthy city.
“There’s a certain element that is going to vote no for just whatever reason — either they like to smoke or think it’s an intrusion,” he said.