West Hollywood’s City Council approved on Tuesday night a proposal that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products. The flavor ban would cover smoking tobacco (cigarettes, pipes, cigars), smokeless tobacco (snuff, snus and chewing tobacco) and nicotine solutions in vape forms (e-cigarettes).
The flavor ban was presented as a public health initiative intended to prevent people from becoming addicted to nicotine, the drug contained in tobacco products.
In its vote, the Council directed staff to bring back an ordinance to ban these products. As of right now, there is no ban and until it passes on second reading whenever a draft ordinance comes to Council these are still allowed to be sold in WeHo.
Studies have shown the vast majority of people who become addicted to nicotine first try it before the age of 18 and many of those young people are first introduced via flavored products. E-cigarette vapes come in dozens of flavors including cotton candy, chocolate, and bubble gum, flavors particularly appealing to young people. Use of tobacco products has been shown to cause cancer, heart disease and other health problems.
“We have a community-wide commitment to helping people with addiction and this falls in that category,” said Councilmember Lindsey Horvath who authored the proposal along with Mayor John D’Amico.
Additionally, the proposal would ban the use of coupons and discounts on tobacco products since they make it cheaper for people to buy tobacco products.
The item was passed with three votes – from D’Amico, Horvath and Councilmember John Heilman. Meanwhile, Councilmember John Duran voted against it and Councilmember Lauren Meister abstained from the vote.
Duran spoke vehemently against the ban, pointing out that West Hollywood is an adult city with less than 10% of its residents under age 18. He also noted federal law already bans people under age 21 from buying any form of tobacco. Duran suggested that people who want flavored tobacco products will just go outside the city to buy it so this ban will not deter use.
“Sometimes I think government can go too far intruding into the private lives of people when we try to regulate human behavior,” said Duran.
Duran further noted that West Hollywood is a city known for its adult nightlife and that passing such a “nanny-state” item as this goes against the culture of the city.
Meister suggested the proposal should first go to the city’s Business License Commission for input before the Council voted on it. She also criticized the lack of clarity about several points of the proposal.
“It this targeting youth or is this targeting our 21+ adult population?” asked Meister.
She also asked if flavored vapes that do not contain nicotine will be included and if flavored cannabis vapes will be included but got no answer.
However, when Meister asked if menthol cigarettes will be banned, Horvath said they would. Horvath explained her proposal was modeled after a Los Angeles County ban, passed in October 2019, on flavored tobacco products that included menthol cigarettes.
Menthol has been used as a flavoring in cigarettes for decades. Menthol brands such a Newport or Salem or Kool are particularly popular with African-American smokers as well LGBT smokers. Meister suggested banning menthol cigarettes that are popular with minority groups could be viewed as discriminatory.
Duran and Meister also questioned the hypocrisy of the city recently approving smoking lounges for cannabis, but now trying to ban flavored tobacco products.
“It is inconsistent for us to support the creation of smoking lounges, hookah bars for our Middle Eastern community and then attempt to do this to our ma and pa retailers,” said Duran.
Heilman responded that public health is more important than business.
“The point of this is to protect our residents from the dangerous impact of tobacco and I’m going to support that over the interests of the business community,” said Heilman.
Heilman also suggested that city staff return with a date for implementing it, saying that waiting until the end of the year would give tobacco retailers time to adapt,
During the public comment period, several store owners criticized the proposal, noting they received no advance notice from the city about the item. Typically, the city seeks input from business owners and the Chamber of Commerce on matters that will impact their business prior to proposing an item like this.
Donny Cacy, who owns the 7-Eleven convenience store on Santa Monica Boulevard at Curson Avenue, suggested the city should work on enforcing the ban of sales to minors rather than initiating this.
Mani Merabi, owner of Smoke for Less tobacco shop at 8205 Santa Monica Blvd., at La Jolla, said he is a responsible shop owner who has never been cited for selling to minors. He said the ban could put him out of business and the city should work to help keep stores open rather than add to the many empty storefronts in town.
Meanwhile, Arthur Corona, speaking for a group of shop owners, suggested the city shouldn’t ban flavored tobacco products but instead regulate them like cannabis.
“Banning this in one fatal swoop leads to perhaps a slippery slope. I think if we’re looking at the fact it’s flavored, we have to look at flavored alcohol, we have to look at other flavored things that are perhaps are damaging to one’s health,” said Corona.
Resident John Hall said the city shouldn’t change the rules on how a business can operate and suggested grandfathering in existing businesses.
Meanwhile two employees of Equality California spoke in favor of the ban, noting that tobacco use is higher in the LGBT community than the general population and preventing LGBT youth from getting addicted is a good thing.
Horvath and D’Amico initially placed their proposal on the consent calendar, which is where the Council approves multiple items in a single vote without any discussion. However, Duran removed it from the consent calendar so it could be discussed.
This is not the first time a Councilmember has tried to pass a tobacco-related item via the consent calendar. In Dec. 2009, then Councilmember Abbe Land proposed a ban on smoking in outdoor areas of bars and restaurants and initially placed it on the consent calendar. However, Duran also removed that item from the consent calendar for discussion, which ultimately caused the creation of a smoking task force to study the matter. The end result was the city ended up banning smoking on patios of restaurants but not nightclubs.
Two other smoking related items are tentatively scheduled to be on the Council’s agenda in the coming months – a ban on smoking in the city’s parks and a ban on smoking in apartment buildings.