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Menthols for $25? L.A. Retailers Ignoring Flavored Tobacco Ban Continue to Sell Without Consequences

As of early October, no retailers or individuals in the city of Los Angeles have been prosecuted for violating the state or local ban.

9:01 AM PDT on October 24, 2023

An assortment of flavored cigars purchased in Los Angeles in October.
Lexis-Olivier Ray|

An assortment of flavored cigars purchased in Los Angeles in October.

Nearly a year into a state and local ban on most flavored tobacco products, menthols are still around. If you can afford to pay upwards of $24 per pack.

Meanwhile, flavored blunts and vape cartridges continue to openly line the shelves of many smoke shops.

Shops found in violation of California’s flavored tobacco ban can face $250 fines. And in the city of Los Angeles—where officials passed an even stricter ban on flavored tobacco—the unlawful retail sale of flavored tobacco products could land you in county jail for up to six months and cost you a fine of up to a grand.

Enforcing the state and local bans largely falls on local law enforcement agencies. But here in the city of Los Angeles, tobacco retailers openly ignoring the bans have faced few consequences.

As of early October, no retailers or individuals in the city of Los Angeles have been prosecuted for violating the state or local ban.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office confirmed with L.A. TACO that “no misdemeanor criminal cases have been filed” associated with the state or local flavored tobacco bans this year.

In a statement, Ivor Pine, spokesperson for Los Angeles City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto explained, “We are continuing to conduct on-site retailer compliance checks, issuing written warnings and when necessary, issuing cease and desist letters.”

As of earlier this month, the city attorney’s office has issued 115 cease and desist letters, Pine confirmed.

“LAPD is also issuing ACE citations to retailers that continued to sell flavored tobacco even after having received a written warning,” Pine continued.

The Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) Program is “a non-criminal approach to nuisance abatement and quality of life offenses - using fines instead of arrest, incarceration and criminal records,” according to the city attorney’s website.

As of early October, the city attorney's office had “processed” two ACE citations issued by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

The LAPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment seeking an update on their enforcement of flavored tobacco.

In March, LAPD spokesperson Lieutenant Leticia Ruiz told L.A. TACO that “discussions between the L.A. City Attorney and state tobacco personnel regarding enforcement are still occurring.”

“In the meantime, proactive education to licensed tobacco retailers within the City of Los Angeles is still being conducted,” Ruiz continued. “The education consists of site inspections, informational literature and contact phone numbers. Currently, businesses within the City of Los Angeles are aware that they had until December 31, 2022, to remove any flavored tobacco products.”

In April, Ruiz reiterated that conversations between the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and the state tobacco agency regarding enforcement were still “ongoing.”

On a county level, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) could not immediately confirm if any businesses or individuals had been cited or fined for violating the state’s flavored tobacco ban.

In an October statement to L.A. TACO, the sheriff’s department said, “We are working in collaboration with other outside entities as well as our contracted and unincorporated cities to enforce this law. We will continue to educate our personnel and the public in regard to this passed legislation.”

Where’s It Coming From?

In some instances, the flavored tobacco being sold in Los Angeles comes from states like Nevada, where tobacco is relatively inexpensive and the laws on flavored tobacco are less stringent than here in California.

More often than not though, the supply of flavored tobacco being sold today comes from the palettes of cigarettes, blunts, and vape cartridges that were hoarded by retailers and wholesalers before the ban went into effect at the beginning of the year.

Some flavored tobacco products—like vape cartridges—can also be purchased online.

Cigarettes are stamped for tax reasons, so it’s easy to tell where the menthols that are still being sold in Los Angeles are coming from—just check the pack.

Flavored cigars and vapes on the other hand do not have tax stamps. So it’s almost impossible to tell if a pack of cognac-flavored Backwoods came from Nevada, Texas, California, or even overseas.

Finding a pack of “real” menthol Newports or Camel Crushes is difficult these days. But flavored cigars and tobacco wraps seem to be everywhere.

L.A. TACO visited more than eight smoke shops in the Downtown, East Hollywood, and Westlake areas of Los Angeles in October. All of whom had flavored cigars and wraps on their shelves.

L.A. TACO reached out to some of the major cigar retailers to confirm if the products that they’re selling to wholesalers and retailers in California comply with the state’s ban on flavored tobacco products.

Chris Howard, executive vice president of external affairs and new product compliance for the company that owns Swisher Sweets, said in a statement to L.A. TACO: “Swisher continues to work with wholesale accounts based in Los Angeles and throughout California to facilitate the sale of our wide array of unflavored products still permissible for sale in the state. We do not know how California retailers would obtain Swisher’s flavored products as we are committed to compliance with all California state regulations and, as such, do not sell flavored products in the state."

ITG Brands, the parent company of tobacco brands such as Backwoods, Dutch Masters, Phillies, and White Owl, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘Why Ban It If There Are No Consequences?’

Ten months into a state and local ban on most flavored tobacco products, tobacco retailers selling products under the table face few consequences.

Meanwhile prices have soared.

“I bought some cartons of Newports for $200,” an employee who manages a smoke shop in West Hollywood, who declined to give their full name, told L.A. TACO this spring. Prior to the flavored tobacco ban, a carton of cigs ran for about half that amount.

“But I have regulars that will wipe me out no matter how much they are,” the manager said. "I can’t believe they pay it. I tell them I have cheaper ones but smokers like what they like.”

Both Camel and Newport's menthol cigarettes can retail for as much as $24 or $25 per pack, according to the manager, while “generic” menthols sell for around $12.

“But Newports and Camel Crush, we are paying like $20-$22 a pack so our margin is still small,” the manager told L.A. TACO. “We just have them for the real ones that want them.”

Today it’s not uncommon to see Backwoods going for $10-$12 for a five pack and packs of Swishers selling for twice the price listed on the packaging (2 for $1.49).

“$25 for a pack of menthols?” the owner of a liquor store near Downtown exclaimed. “And people are like, ‘I’m willing to pay for those.’”

The business owner admitted that if they could regularly get their hands on menthols they would sell them under the table.

“I just don't have a source to get them,” they said.

The liquor store owner has been seeing flavored blunts and vapes “in abundance” at the tobacco warehouses downtown and he continues to stock the products on his shelves. 

“The concept to me is mind blowing… why ban it if there are no consequences?” the liquor store owner wondered.

Before flavored tobacco was outlawed in California, critics of similar flavored tobacco-bans argued that outlawing menthol cigarettes and candy-flavored vape carts would create a “black market,” which would inevitably lead to the further criminalization of poor people of color.

“Our group believes that the ban on menthol cigarettes is a target against people of color,” organizer Brian Jointer told L.A. TACO in 2019, when he was protesting an L.A. County proposal to ban flavored tobacco.

“It’s no different than when they banned alcohol in the prohibition era,” Jointer predicted in 2019. “We’re going to have young kids out here selling loose cigarettes for $2 a pop.”

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

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