Redwood City bans flavored tobacco products

The Redwood City Council this week voted to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, as well as ban the sale of all tobacco products at pharmacies and prohibit new hookah lounges from being permitted in the city.

The move follows similar bans enacted by other cities in the county aiming to limit flavored tobacco products from reaching children. Councilmembers alleged such products, sometimes with flavors like bubble gum or watermelon, target children who can easily become addicted and suffer adverse health effects.

“I am a nurse, I believe in the science and the damage that tobacco causes. I took care of patients with terrible respiratory diseases,” Mayor Diane Howard said. “The earlier you start the more difficult it is to quit, especially when you’re talking about children”

The ordinance will go back before the council Dec. 20 for final approval, and would take effect April 2022.

There are 58 tobacco retail license holders in the city including three hookah lounges, according to a staff report. The current hookah lounges would be allowed to continue operation.

Products affected include flavored chew, cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, vape liquid and hookah tobacco. Businesses that continue to sell such products past April will risk a $250 fine or loss of their tobacco sales license.

South San Francisco, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, San Carlos, Portola Valley, Half Moon Bay, Burlingame and the city of San Mateo have all banned the sale of flavored tobacco products. Some additionally prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes or vapes regardless of flavor, and South San Francisco also prohibits hookah lounges.

Councilmember Lissette Espinoza-Garnica, who was the lone dissenter in the councils 6-1 vote, said the inclusion of hookah lounges within the prohibition carried a cultural bias, and called the move the action of an “authoritarian nanny.”

“Ask how many councilmembers want to outlaw wine bars and see how they feel about it,” Espinoza-Garnica said. “I don’t want us to shame each other’s vices based on cultural biases.”

Vice Mayor Giselle Hale rebutted the notion, noting that school officials were contacting the council about tobacco use, not alcohol use.

“They’re coming to us about the particular ways Big Tobacco are using these products to attract children, and especially … children of color,” Hale said.

Councilmember Diana Reddy said her bias was toward protecting children, and that smokers she knew who had trouble quitting had started at a young age. She said she supported the measure, including the allowance of existing hookah lounges, despite calls from advocates to ban hookah lounges outright.

A city staff report cited a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that more than 80% of youth who reported using tobacco products began by using a flavored tobacco product. Vaping products in particular have become increasingly popular with minors, the report noted.

Councilmember Michael Smith voted in favor of the measure, but also took issue with the inclusion of a hookah prohibition in the ordinance citing cultural concerns. Smith asked that the ordinance be reexamined after a year, a request that was granted.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 signed Senate Bill 793, a law prohibiting the sale and distribution of flavored tobacco products. The law includes some exceptions, including products intended to be smoked in a hookah. The law’s implementation was put on hold after an initiative to repeal the law gained enough signatures to be placed on the ballot, and voters will decide the law’s fate next year.

Corey Browning/The Daily Journal