San Jose becomes largest US city to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, also ends flavored tobacco sales

If you live in San Jose and are craving menthol cigarettes or those fruity, candied, flavored vapes, you’ll soon have to go somewhere else to buy them.

San Jose this week became the largest city in the country to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and the biggest city in California to ban flavored e-cigarettes in the hopes of preventing enticed teens from getting hooked on nicotine.

“I think it’s an important first step to making sure we keep these very dangerous, very addictive products not only out of the hands of our children but really off of their radar,” San Jose Councilwoman Magdalena Carrasco said.

Under the new ordinance unanimously approved Tuesday by the City Council, San Jose’s more than 650 tobacco retailers have until June 30, 2022, to deplete the newly prohibited products before facing any fines or enforcement action. New tobacco retailers can’t sell menthol and flavored e-cigarettes at all and also will be prohibited from opening a store within 500 feet of another smoke shop or within 1,000 feet of a school, park, community center or library.

Despite pushback from public health and anti-tobacco advocates, the city opted to carve out an exemption for the sale of flavored hookah.

A year after the ordinance is fully implemented, the city plans to review its effectiveness and decide whether any changes should be made, such as eliminating the hookah exemption.

“This ordinance isn’t perfect, but the goal is to get it passed, take a look at it and bring back what we need to in a year,” Councilwoman Pam Foley said. “… Because frankly, big tobacco is not going to stop with this. They will figure out some other distribution system, some other way to reach our kids.”

The council also was expected to vote on a separate proposed ordinance that would prohibit smoking cigarettes, cigars, vapes and cannabis inside apartments with three or more units. But at the beginning of the meeting, the council decided to delay that vote until next month, citing a need to further vet details of the proposal.

In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the sale of most flavored tobacco products statewide, but the tobacco industry quickly launched a referendum campaign that put the ban on hold until voters decide whether to enact it next year. If approved, the statewide ban will supersede similar city ordinances, though cities could implement stricter regulations.

In the meantime, San Jose joined more than 100 cities across California to adopt their own bans.

The council heard from more than 50 residents and advocates, including teachers, doctors, teens and parents, most of whom voiced strong support for the flavored tobacco ban.

Dr. Phil Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, told the council that ending the sale of menthol cigarettes would save the lives of Black residents who have historically been targeted by the tobacco industry.

“It’s become clear that menthol cigarettes and flavored little cigars are the main factor of death and disease in the Black community,” he said. “This has been going on for some 30 years, and you have the chance to stop it here.”

City resident Heidi Garland urged the council to “put the health of our kids and our residents over tobacco company profits.”

“It’s time to stand up to big tobacco and protect the residents of San Jose like me, my husband and our two sons,” she said.

Alternatively, San Jose smoke shop owners and residents who vape or smoke menthol cigarettes argued that the ban was a form of “government overreach,” adding that they felt it would lead to a “black market.”

One resident, who identified himself as Jon D, questioned the effectiveness of a ban.

“If the ban works, how come my neighborhood sounds like a war zone every Fourth of July despite the ban on fireworks?” he said. “The ban won’t work.”

He compared flavored cigarettes to fruit-flavored alcoholic seltzers, calling those a “gateway to alcoholism.”

Nam Nguyen, a tobacco store owner, said the city was targeting the wrong people with the ban, adding that teens will just turn to black-market or online sales.

“Us business owners are not the bad guys, for we ID every person,” he said. “We don’t want to sell to kids. We only cater to adults.”

Maggie Angst/The Mercury News