The San Mateo City Council on Monday unanimously approved a ban on the sale of all flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes in the city as well as the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies.

“[The above products] are a highly addictive poison that hurt people and kill people and they’re getting children addicted when they’re underage. That’s why we want to make it illegal,” said Mayor Joe Goethals at Monday’s meeting. “We want to keep these things out of the hands of children because it hurts children and public health.”

The ban, which was approved on first reading, will go into effect in January to provide time for outreach and for businesses to adjust to the new rules.

Initially proposed in the city by a group of concerned residents last year, the ban comes several months after the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 793, which bans the sale of most, but not all, flavored tobacco products. SB 793 was authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, who pushed for similar restrictions when he was on the San Mateo City Council.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors also recently banned sales of flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes in the unincorporated parts of the county.

Businesses that violate the new ban once it’s in effect will have their retailer’s permit suspended and will face fines that escalate after multiple offenses. The fine for a first offense is $100, it’s $200 for the second one within a year and $500 for each additional conviction within a year, said City Attorney Shawn Mason. Councilman Rick Bonilla expressed interest in considering higher fines in the future.

While many spoke in support of the ban during the public comment portion of the meeting, others, including representatives of tobacco retailers, described the ban as government overreach.

“The ordinance is written as government overreach as adults have a right to choose to purchase these legal products,” said Jaime Rojas, representing the National Association of Tobacco Outlets. Rojas requested an exemption from the flavored tobacco ban for shisha, which is commonly used in hookahs, and loose-leaf pipe tobacco and cigars, but the council did not grant the request. Others also made similar requests.

“Hookah is a long-standing tradition and culture in many Arab, Turk, Persian and Armenian cultures and should be considered as a cultural item used in specific practices of someone’s traditional culture,” said George Johnson representing the Hookah Chamber of Commerce. He noticed hookah is exempted from SB 793.

But Annie Tegan, representing the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said hookah is part of the problem.

“We know youth in California are using hookah, they are using menthol cigarettes, flavored cigarillos and of course many of these youth are vaping in our middle and high schools,” she said.

According to Mayra Amador of the San Mateo County Tobacco Prevention Program, a 2018 survey found e-cigarette use among high schoolers in San Mateo and San Francisco counties was 20.8% while the statewide prevalence was 10.9%.

“In addition, nearly 81% of youth ages 12 to 17 who had ever used a tobacco product reported the first product they used was flavored,” she said. “This coincides with the fact that flavoring masks the harsh taste of tobacco, which makes it easier for youth to initiate tobacco use.”

Jivtesh Gill, chairman of the American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association, said in a statement before the meeting retailers are the “best line of defense when it comes to restricting the sale of tobacco products to minors.” He noted the FDA inspects retailers for compliance with the law and claimed San Mateo retailers have a 96% compliance rate.

He also said the ban will hurt small businesses.

“The council appears ready to destroy small businesses over the issue,” he said in a statement leading up to the council’s decision. “San Mateo convenience store owners estimate 36% of their store sales come from tobacco. Tobacco sales drive ancillary sales of gas, food and other products and keep them in business. This ordinance will directly impact their bottom line and ability to stay in business.”

The council will hold a second reading and vote of the ordinance in October.

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