Chula Vista bans flavored tobacco products

Chula Vista council members on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance banning the sale of flavored tobacco products.

The move prohibits the sale of all flavored tobacco items, including menthol because it is an additive with a minty taste. Premium cigars and shisha, the tobacco smoked in a hookah, are exempt. After a three-hour discussion, the council agreed the ban will take effect on Jan. 1, after California voters decide in November whether to approve a statewide prohibition.

Supporters, many of them parents and representatives from various health organizations, said the ban is necessary to reduce youth smoking and counter the tobacco industry’s use of flavors, such as bubble gum or cotton candy, that appeal to underage users. Several students told the council that vaping is an epidemic at their schools, where kids would rather wait than use the restrooms that are clouded by vape smoke.

“Banning these flavors would be a huge win in overcoming the vaping epidemic,” said Riley Stanley. “At 15, I wasn’t able to recognize the harmful impacts that candied, fruit-flavored vapes would have on my generation but at 22 I can easily sit here and say that I never would have picked up a vape if it weren’t for the easy accessibility to kid-friendly, flavored tobacco that we see today.”

Of 2,400 teenagers in Chula Vista, nearly 35 percent said they have tried an e-cigarette or vape device, and 44 percent are accessing them at vape shops, gas stations and convenience stores, according to a 2021 survey by the Sweetwater Union High School District. Most students said in the same poll that they were not likely to use unflavored tobacco products, 29 percent said they were unsure and 2 percent said very likely. There were more than 120 local retailers selling tobacco as of last year, and about 30 percent are located within 500 feet of a school or park, according to the city.

Nationally, 2 million students in middle school and high school said the most popular tobacco product they used last year was flavored e-cigarettes, according to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Opponents said an end to legal sales would not stop people from buying flavored products and instead push them to explore the black market. Local retail store owners and representatives of the Neighborhood Market Association also argued that a ban would financially hurt businesses and force adult customers to buy outside the city.

“Come meet with us and see how we run our business … how we enforce not to sell to a minor and because we’re protecting our business and that’s our livelihood,” said store owner Randy Sadiq.

Between February 2018 and May of this year, more than 20 Chula Vista tobacco retailers were inspected for sales to minors and one shop failed to comply, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Similar arguments in opposition halted a February 2020 proposed ban Chula Vista had considered. Vape shop owners told then-council members that an all-out ban would put their stores out of business because most underage sales came from convenience stores and not vape shops. The owners had suggested steeper fines for businesses found guilty of selling to minors and limited flavored tobacco sales.

The council ultimately decided to postpone voting on a ban until the city identified local stores selling tobacco products and where youth accessed items.

On Tuesday, Mayor Mary Casillas Salas called the February 2020 move a “delay tactic.”

“It was just too tough politically for them to have the moral courage to say, ‘We need this ban. We’re gonna protect our children,’” she said.

The rest of the council agreed with the mayor, who said her granddaughter “first picked up a vape at a Hilltop High School bathroom when she was 15 and now she’s thoroughly addicted to vaping and it has caused her a lot of physical problems.”

Councilmember Andrea Cardenas said she would have liked the city to collect local data on the impacts a ban may have on small businesses.

Councilmember Jill Galvez suggested the city pursue a policy to reduce nicotine levels in products sold locally, but no other council members supported the idea. The FDA is drafting a proposed cap on nicotine and a ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Chula Vista now joins more than 100 California jurisdictions with bans, including Encinitas, Imperial Beach, Solana Beach, the city of San Diego and the county, whose ban applies to unincorporated areas only.

Tuesday’s vote was the first of two required readings of the ordinance. The City Council is expected to hold the second and final vote on Sept. 27, according to the City Clerk’s Office.

Tammy Murga/San Diego Tribune