By Bob Aujla
While Californians wait on the chance to vote in November on whether the State can ban the sales of flavored tobacco products, local governments across the state are haphazardly passing ordinances that prohibit highly regulated, licensed, law-abiding tobacco retailers in their towns from selling these products to their adult customers. In South Pasadena, city leaders showed common sense when they chose not to move forward with a total ban on tobacco products within the city limits. It brought a sigh of relief from the small group of retailers whose small family-owned businesses rely largely on the sale of tobacco. But that relief gives way to new worries with another proposal to ban flavored tobacco.
Local governments often say that to prevent and end tobacco use by young people, they must reduce access to the products. We agree, but when the small group of retailers in South Pasadena – less than a dozen – have a 100% age-verification compliance rate, the argument to remove flavored tobacco from local store shelves don’t hold water. As the owner of several convenience stores in the South Pasadena area, I have invested thousands of dollars in ID technology that stops the sales of tobacco attempted by minors. We do this not just because federal and state, and local laws have made it illegal for us to sell to young people, but because it is the right thing to do. We consider our A+ scorecard proof that we care about their health and well-being.
Like convenience stores across the country, approximately 35% of our revenue is driven by tobacco products. The revenue generated helps pay for salaries that provide for our hard-working, responsible employees and their families. We’re aware of the negative health impacts of tobacco, and we support officials’ efforts to educate young people on the topic. We also support the enforcement of federal, state, and local tobacco laws.
Interestingly, smoking cigarettes year over year is declining on average, and youth smoking rates are at historic lows, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food & Drug Administration state. Thanks to education and more public awareness of the risks of smoking, we’ve seen the number of people who smoke decrease dramatically. According to FDA surveys and reports, the U.S. adult smoking rate, at 12.5%, is the lowest since the government began keeping track in 1965. Only 4% smoke menthol. Adult smoking rates for all groups are declining steadily, irrespective of race and ethnicity differences. Yet anti-tobacco advocates continue to point to outdated data and marketing campaigns from decades ago to scare local officials into passing unwarranted bans.
In the name of protecting young people from smoking menthol cigarettes, city councils across the state have banned them, yet 98.5% of youth don’t smoke. Even fewer young people, less than 1%, have smoked a menthol cigarette in the past 30 days. According to the CDC, the number of teens using vaping is higher but also decreasing on both a national and state level. Education works. Bans don’t. And studies show they could have the opposite intended effect. Just look at San Francisco’s flavored tobacco ban. Research revealed that young people reduced their illegal use of vapor products, but they were also twice as likely to pick up smoking traditional cigarettes.
Banning the convenience store sales of flavored tobacco locally won’t prevent or end sneaky young people from getting their hands on it. They’ll just continue to buy from older friends and family members or buy them online from social media platforms where sources just mail them to their homes. Until there is a statewide ban, the California patchwork of local laws means tobacco customers living in a town that’s banned flavored tobacco are simply inconvenienced when they have to travel to a nearby town where these products are still legal. South Pasadena city leaders must consider the facts and oppose any policy that hurts local businesses and fails to stop youth tobacco use.
In November, voters will have the chance to approve a 2020 law to ban flavored tobacco sales statewide before it can take effect. Until then, we’ll continue to do our part and be vigilant in checking IDs to prohibit the sales of all tobacco to young people, and the city should continue to encourage healthier lifestyles.
Bob Aujla is Chairman of the American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association, which represents the owners of 1,400 businesses providing jobs, essential services, and products to Californians.