San Francisco anti-vaping laws target small businesses and immigrants

Two retail businesses, side-by-side. One is a recreational marijuana dispensary, the other is a corner bodega. The bodega’s cigarette cabinet has a stack of menthols next to the Camels and Marlboros. Guess which store gets in trouble with the authorities? That’s right, it’s the corner bodega. In San Francisco, it’s legal to sell recreational marijuana, but you’re not allowed to sell flavored vape liquids, flavored cigars, or menthol cigarettes. In San Francisco, you can smoke pot all day long, but if you want a strawberry vape, you’re out of luck.

The controversial Proposition E passed on June 5, 2018, and now San Francisco retailers – mostly smaller, immigrant-owned shops – are being hit hard. Many will face a serious loss of revenue, and some will be forced out of business completely.

The proponents of Proposition E claimed that vaping companies target teen smokers, a specious claim that has no basis in fact.

It’s true that in the ’60s and ’70s, Big Tobacco targeted youthful smokers with blatant advertising campaigns such as a cartoon Fred Flintstone smoking Winston cigarettes, but those days are long gone and vape brands have been diligent and if anything, overly cautious in their ad campaigns and targeting. No examples can be found of any ad campaign which targets underage smokers. Proponents of Proposition E simply claim that the mere existence of flavors targets youth, even if not doing so explicitly.

This too, is a weak argument. Do young people who smoke enjoy flavors? Probably. Older smokers do, too. If age-restricted products with flavors were indeed targeting youth, then proponents would also have to remove flavored wines and liquors from all grocery stores as well – no more Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill for you! And of course, nobody is saying anything about the cannabis-infused cookies, brownies, gummies, chocolates, marshmallows and other pot-infused candies on sale legally at the city’s many dispensaries. Are those targeting youth as well? Arguments in favor of Proposition E go down a slippery slope very quickly, and unfairly target only one category of age-restricted product while leaving others intact.

Also in California, the minimum legal age to buy tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping products is 21, a law which is rigorously enforced, as it is with alcohol and marijuana. Shop owners risk losing their licenses if they sell vaping products to an underage customer, and the age restriction in itself should be enough to address the issue of underage consumption of flavored vaping materials. There is no outcry to prohibit fruit-flavored liquor and sweetened edible marijuana products, and such a call for Prohibition of those items would undoubtedly be met with outrage. Flavored tobacco and vaping products should be treated equally – age restricted, which they are, but available to adult buyers as is the case with flavored liquor and marijuana.

The flavored vape and cigarette Prohibition disproportionately affects Arab, Sikh and Asian store owners, mostly with small, neighborhood stores which rely on a few key anchor products to stay in business. In the extremely high-rent city of San Francisco, these small shop owners depend on every penny to make ends meet. Already, at least one business, the Nile Café hookah lounge, has closed as a result of the ban, which also covers flavored hookah tobacco.

Vaping – whether it’s flavored or not – is cleaner and safer than combustible tobacco, and anti-smoking advocacy groups often erroneously associate vaping with smoking. The anti-vaping crowd, in addition to making the false argument that flavors targets youth, also make numerous other claims which have been proven scientifically to be false. For example, second-hand vaping does not pose the same risks as second-hand tobacco, and even the American Cancer Society has issued a statement agreeing that vaping is less harmful than smoking. These misconceptions about vaping have misled the public and is what resulted in this poor law.

The small business community is already fighting back, demanding compensation from the city for the financial hits they will face as a result of the law. Proposition E is bad public policy that unfairly targets a single category of legal product, and it should be repealed.

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