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L.A. County Is Considering a Ban on All Flavored Tobacco Products, It Might Be Time to Stock-Up on Your Swisher Sweets, Menthol Cigarettes and E-Juice Liquids

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]ast week the L.A. County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a ban on all flavored tobacco product sales at stores in unincorporated areas of the county, including menthol cigarettes, flavored vape juice, Swisher Sweets, and other flavored tobacco products, following in the footsteps of other cities and counties across the state.

Beverly Hills has banned all tobacco sales, flavored and unflavored alike. San Francisco city and county, Oakland and El Cerrito have all recently passed ordinances for a complete ban on flavored tobacco products. San Francisco even took it a step further by also banning all e-liquids that aren’t approved by the FDA. Some jurisdictions across the state, including Manhattan Beach and Berkley for instance, have enacted partial bans on flavored tobacco products. Menthol was exempt from Manhattan Beach’s ordinance and Berkley banned flavored tobacco sales only in certain buffer zones around sensitive sites. 

Now it looks like Los Angeles might be the latest jurisdiction to follow in the footsteps of health professionals and over 34 communities across the state to ban flavored tobacco product sales. Last week the Los Angeles City Attorney office submitted a report to the City Council proposing a complete, city-wide ban on flavored tobacco product sales. “Given the recent vaping-related deaths and injuries, combined with the prevalence of vaping among the City’s youth, this report urges the City to heed the advice of medical experts and enact a Citywide ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products,” the report reads.

“Flavored tobacco products are driving the current vaping epidemic amongst youth,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the Director of Public Health in L.A. County. The motion led by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, was prompted by a research project by the University of California Riverside published in April of last year. 

According to the Department of Public Health, more than 80 percent of youth who have used a tobacco product, reported their first product as being flavored and 60 percent purchased their vapes at shops. “Flavoring tends to mask the harsh taste of tobacco,” Dr. Ferrer said at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. At one point Dr. Ferrer was met with loud boos and jeers from the audience that temporarily halted the meeting when she presented a hoodie with a small vape device embedded in the drawstrings, intended to show how kids can conceal their vaping habits.

During a heated session that at times pitted students as young as 11 against adults, Supervisor Hahn repeatedly threatened to clear the room due to outbursts. All told, over 300 people gave public comment for over three and a half hours. The ban was lead by a coalition of students, parents, doctors, and public health officials that claim that flavored tobacco products target underage users, posing health risks for young adults. According to the department of public health, two in five high school students in L.A. County reported ever using e-cig products.

“It’s easier to get nicotine than books for school...”

Migdalia Ajtun, a resident of Boyle Heights and 11th grader at Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High School tells L.A. Taco that she got involved with the coalition through a joint program at her school between students and parents that tackles community problems. “I don’t think most kids know what [e-cig cartridges] has in it and I don’t think anybody cares,” Atjun says she was peer pressured into using e-cigs a couple of times by her peers.

The most popular e-cig product amongst her friends are Juuls according to Atjun and there are at least two smoke shops near her school that sells to minors, “Some people know the owners and the owners sell it to them, and then they sell it to other kids, so it’s like a mini-business going around.” On Tuesday, Dr. Ferrer confirmed that out of roughly 280 compliance checks with licensed tobacco retailers across the unincorporated area in the last year, 25 percent was sold to minors.

Students in support of the ban recounted stories of their peers hitting Juuls during classes and in bathrooms, as well as false fire alarms being the result of kids smoking cigarettes on campus, which has lead to suspensions and even expulsion in some cases. They also spoke about the peer pressure associated with vaping, “If everybody’s doing it, what harm could it do to me, maybe this isn’t so bad,” a junior from Ridley Thomas’ district illustrated the attractiveness of vaping. He recounts that even the best-performing students' productivity decrease after they started vaping.

'There were 25 people working for the company, they’re all jobless now...'

Doctor Wendy Walsh, a professor of health psychology and mother of a 16-year-old with autism said her daughter was suspended for vaping in the school bathroom during public comment, “[Schools] have to deal with this crisis so they suspend [students]...education is being lost.” 

“It’s easier to get nicotine than books for school,” senior at Animo Watts Prep School said during public comment. Another student from Animo Leadership High School said, “The representatives you see today are people of color, and people of low socioeconomic status. It is common for our communities to be ignored, we need a change in our communities now.”

“Companies selling flavored tobacco products are not here for the kids, they’re here for the money,” a sophomore at San Marino High School said.

Almost everybody that opposed the ordinance agreed that they don’t want kids using tobacco products and that they’re not safe for non-adult use but they largely pointed to parents as being the problem. However, they lacked a position that united all supporters beyond universally disapproving of the ban. 

“I’ve been vaping for the last four years, the kids arguments are really weak. We are helping people quit smoking,” Behroz, a resident of Ontario, California tells L.A. Taco outside of Kenneth Hahn Hall in between vape hits. Behroz points to the low number of people that have died from vaping versus the high number of people that die from smoking every year. Behroz is also an employee working in the vape industry with over four years of experience, he says his job is now at risk, “I could lose my job just like that.” Behroz’s father also works in the industry as a delivery driver, “There were 25 people working for the company, they’re all jobless now. When they announced that they might ban [flavored e-liquids], shop owners stopped buying vape products because they have to get rid of their inventory.”

Bobby Habibi, a restaurant and hookah lounge owner with over 18 years in the business and 70 employees pleaded with the Board of Supervisors during public comment to make a 'cultural exception' for hookah products...

Outside of Kenneth Hahn Hall, Brian Jointer, a young African-American organizer that’s lived in Los Angeles for over 34 years was having a smoke break. Jointer tells L.A. Taco, “Our group believes that the ban on menthol cigarettes is a target against people of color.” Jointer and many others believe that the ban on menthol and other flavored tobacco products will create a lucrative black market, “It’s no different than when they banned alcohol in the prohibition era. We’re going to have young kids out here selling loose cigarettes for $2 a pop,” Jointer predicts.

“Kids are doing this illegally anyways, what makes you think they’re not going to try harder to obtain these [banned substances] on the black market,” Jointer added.

Bobby Habibi, a restaurant and hookah lounge owner with over 18 years in the business and 70 employees pleaded with the Board of Supervisors during public comment to make a “cultural exception” for hookah products, “Hookah is not the problem,” Habibi and others pointed to the rich cultural history of hookah tradition that spans hundreds of years.

There is the belief that vaping and hookah use is safer than smoking cigarettes but studies show nicotine can permanently harm teens’ brains, which continues to develop until age 25. “These flavored tobacco products are a gateway to combustible [cigarette use], there is no such thing as a safe nicotine product, nicotine is the addictive product in tobacco,” Primo J. Castro with the American Cancer Society, tells L.A. Taco after the vote.

“It’s going to leave me with basically nothing to make up for my rent. My employees will lose their jobs. I’m on the hook on the lease for $4,200 a month for the next four years.”

During public comment, some members of the public opposing the ban accused organizers of “busing in students” and preparing them for public comment outside. Several students were booed during their testimony, leading Supervisors Kuehl, Barger and Hahn to all to condemn their actions before voting to unanimously approve the ordinance.

During her closing remarks, Supervisor Kuehl reminded the audience of millions of young people that protested across the world this past weekend to express their feelings about climate control, “It is not a good tactic to tell us that students should be seen and not heard, or they shouldn’t be bussed to the board. That kind of disrimination, when you’re talking about discrimination against yourself, that kind of blindspot about talking about young people ‘not knowing what they’re talking about’ may have been true when you were young, but it’s not true now.”

The ordinance doesn’t limit online sales or flavored tobacco use. Retailers across unincorporated areas of L.A. County will have 180 days to sell their inventory and comply with the ordinance once the Board of Supervisors approves the final ordinance on October 1, 2019.

Outside after the verdict, organizers from the coalition celebrated the historic victory with smiles and group photos. Nearby a small group of people in opposition to the ban looked shell-shocked as they soaked in the news. Leonard Howls, a vape shop owner in Mission Hills, California declined an interview with L.A. Taco, “I’m too depressed to talk today.”

Elia Baida, a 21-and-over vape shop owner in the city of San Fernando told L.A.Taco that the Board of Supervisors decision will remove 80-90 percent of his inventory and basically put him out of business. “It’s going to leave me with basically nothing to make up for my rent. My employees will lose their jobs. I’m on the hook on the lease for $4,200 a month for the next four years.” Baida says that his landlord is notorious for going after the equity on business owners homes if they fail to repay their leases in full. Baida has an applied mathematics degree from UCLA, he says he’s crunched the numbers and tried to find a way around the ban, “There’s no way around this. They did the big tobacco companies the biggest favor that anybody could ever imagine.”

The ordinance doesn’t limit online sales or flavored tobacco use. Retailers across unincorporated areas of L.A. County will have 180 days to sell their inventory and comply with the ordinance once the Board of Supervisors approves the final ordinance on October 1, 2019.

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