San Francisco Becomes First US City to Ban E-Cigarettes

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Seeking to combat a recent spike in nicotine use among teens, San Francisco officials voted Tuesday to ban the sale of e-cigarettes, making it the first U.S. city to do so and prompting vows by big and small businesses to fight the ban at the ballot box.

“This is saying to the small businesses, ‘We don’t care about you,'” said Carlos Solorzano of the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce of San Francisco, adding small businesses depend on e-cigarette sales to survive.

The legislation, unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes online and in stores until they are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a process expected to take another three years or more.

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who sponsored the legislation with City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said the ban aims to protect young people from falling prey to “Big Tobacco” marketing designed to get teenagers hooked on nicotine for life.

“They want to protect their profits to continue targeting and harming our young people, and they know e-cigarettes are not healthy,” Walton said.

In 2016, the FDA classified e-cigarettes as tobacco products subject to its jurisdiction. After initially giving companies until 2018 to apply for review of e-cigarette products, the FDA in 2017 extended that deadline to Aug. 8, 2022.

Opponents of the ban, including San Francisco-based vaping giant Juul, say it will prevent adults from using  e-cigarettes to wean themselves off smoking more toxic combustible cigarettes.

“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,” Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said by email.

Juul has sponsored a proposed ballot measure that would override the ban with a package of regulations, including limiting each purchase to two devices and five nicotine cartridges, requiring permits for online sellers that ship to San Francisco and placing e-cigarettes behind counters in locked boxes at stores. The ballot proposal would also overturn the city’s previous ban on selling flavored tobacco products.

Kwong said Juul has taken steps to combat underage tobacco use. It stopped selling certain flavored vaping products, strengthened its online age verification system and shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Addressing retailers’ concerns, Supervisor Walton promised to establish a working group to identify alternate revenue sources for merchants.

Solorzano, of the city’s Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, said city legislators should have started helping small retailers long ago. He said the ban will put more minority-owned and family-owned merchants out of business.

“We are losing businesses in the Fillmore and the Mission,” Solorzano said, referring to the city’s historically black and Latino neighborhoods.

Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, who grew up working in his parents’ corner store in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, encouraged retailers to find new ways to earn money without selling harmful products.

“Over time there has become more reliance on unhealthy and dangerous products that make these stores viable,” Yee said.

Antonio Lau, technology director for the city’s Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, said the city should instead sponsor youth education programs on nicotine and give merchants more tools to help enforce the law.

“A better approach is to provide better technology to detect fake IDs,” Lau said.

In 2016, San Francisco raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Also on Tuesday, supervisors approved banning the sale, manufacturing and distribution of e-cigarettes on city property, a move that will block Juul from expanding its current headquarters at San Francisco’s historic Pier 70 building and prevent all tobacco firms from doing business on city property in the future.

Both ordinances require one more vote by the Board of Supervisors to advance to Mayor London Breed for approval.

Tobacco use among young people spiked last year for the first time since the 1990s, with 4.9 million U.S. middle and high school students reporting that they used tobacco – up 38% from 2017. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attribute the increase to a surge in e-cigarette use.

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