Advocates have submitted the necessary number of signatures to halt the implementation of SB 793 which would have stopped the sale of certain tobacco products in the state of California. The referendum will go to voters in 2022, however, some local cities see this as an opportunity to circumvent voters rights and implement the ban themselves.
The Long Beach city council unanimously moved to make a temporary ban on flavored tobacco, menthol and certain vaping products permanent which outraged the business community who pay higher tobacco permit fees than neighboring city’s.
Retailers called in, one by one, discussing how their business was losing revenue due to their customers driving to the city of Signal Hill to purchase their preferred tobacco products.
“Our business is down by 30% and our customers went to the next city to purchase,” said Amir Brahan, who owns multiple stores in the city of Long Beach. “How is it helpful to have money leave the city?”
Braham implored the council to hold off on implementation and wait for voters to weigh in when it is placed on the ballot in 2022.
“My customers haven’t stopped smoking because of this ban,” Braham said.
“How do you considering only flavored tobacco as dangerous and not non-flavored?” asked Charlie Patel.
The city’s health department, and Council members Al Austin and Suzie Price hammered on the negative health effects smoking had, while voting in favor of an ordinance that doesn’t implement a full ban on all tobacco related products, including cigars and hookah.
“Our Health and Human Services Department strongly recommends the City Council take immediate action to adopt a permanent prohibition of the sale of all flavored tobacco products in the city, except for hookah lounges and premium cigars under certain conditions,” said Kelly Colopy. The goal is “to protect the public health of our community”.
Colopy didn’t take this same position when the city approved cannabis in the city, despite data showing the number of drivers being under the influence of the drug.
When presented data by the National Transportation Safety Board on the rise in unsafe driving related to cannabis use, she didn’t urge the council not to pass an ordinance legalizing the sales in Long Beach, her office accepted a grant to educate the public on the dangers of driving under the influence.
The grant funds were used to create the Long Beach Marijuana Education Program.
“People are aware they should not drive drunk but many are unaware that it is also unsafe and illegal to drive high on marijuana and other drugs,” said Colopy.
Is her office not seeking ways to further educate the youth on the dangers of flavored tobacco if grant funds aren’t attached?
Al Austin claims to be advancing a “black agenda” because he hosts HBCU college fairs, despite his official biography not listing if he attended college himself.
It is no secret that menthol and flavored tobacco products are favored by African-Americans, and thus Austin’s position on the products are taking away the rights of legal age consumers to purchase these products in their city.
Austin is no stranger to controversy surrounding his tone deaf approach to issues facing the city’s residents, particularly women.
It is well documented, and became a hot button issue during his 2020 re-election bid, that he doesn’t support the rights to women working in safe working conditions at the city’s hotels.
Housekeepers were concerned for their safety, and threat of sexual assault by hotel guests. They asked for panic buttons to be installed in hotel rooms and Austin was against it. Voters decided they were necessary and overwhelmingly passed Measure WW.
Others are concerned Austin takes positions, in alignment with Price, who is an aggressive prosecutor in Orange County, who caught heat for overly prosecuting a man, who identified as gay, as a sex offender. The man was found not guilty, but as par for the course, Price refused to answer media questions surrounding her decisions as she has declined requests for comment by this author on why the city isn’t choosing to enforce stricter guidelines for tobacco retailers to ensure they aren’t selling to underage residents.
Austin declined to comment as well.
Walking into any given tobacco retailer in the city of Long Beach, postings are at the registers detailing the age requirement to purchase tobacco products.
Long Beach Police Department was not called upon to present data on the number of retailers cited for either selling or marketing tobacco products to minors.
Long Beach had an opportunity to follow the path they created for the cannabis industry by continuing to educate the youth on the health effects of smoking and continue to enforce rules which prohibit the marketing of products to youth.
Councilmember Al Austin attempted to gain sympathy from his colleagues using the death of his mother as the driving force behind his decision to support the ban.
“Smoking and the negative outcomes disproportionately do affect Black people and communities of color,” Councilmember Al Austin, who lost his mother to lung cancer, said. “The moral thing to do, the right thing to do would be to support this permanent ban.”
Like many others Austin’s mother chose to smoke which was her right.
“I understand the impact and it’s a harmful product and a problem with our youth accessing,” said Austin. “I do understand this could create an illicit market.”
Austin’s council colleague was concerned that the ordinance was seeking to penalize all tobacco retailers, not just those who defied the city’s established ordinance.
“If the target of the ordinance is to eliminate youth getting access to tobacco products, why aren’t there more strict guidelines for retailers who violate and sell to minors,” asked Councilwoman Stacy Mungo. “Why aren’t we bringing forth an item that penalizes offending businesses.”
If the council feels the voter isn’t educated enough on the dangers of these products, why are they ignoring an opportunity to either increase the fees and/or enforcement to ensure the youth are properly educated on the products they are using?
Long Beach retailers pay an annual permit fee of $585 which is to include random inspections by Environmental Health Inspectors and for the police department to conduct undercover decoy operations to ensure products aren’t being sold to minors.
Jaime Rojas, with the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, said the ban would only serve to hurt more businesses that have already been impacted by the coronavirus-induced recession.
“We completely oppose it,” he said, “and hope the City Council realizes that all they’re doing is closing more businesses and losing the economic opportunity of businesses reviving in Long Beach.”
With the city facing unprecedented revenue shortfalls, in the coming years, residents should be concerned they aren’t looking at ways to increase revenue through increased fees.
Without any cuts, the city currently projects a $25-to-$41 million shortfall in the general fund for fiscal year 2020, a $30 million shortfall in fiscal year 2021, a $13 million shortfall in fiscal year 2022 and a $22 million shortfall in fiscal year 2023.
“We are taking away revenue from the retailers and city when youth are still able to buy these products online,” said Mayra Bautista. “How can council work with the school district to come up with solutions?”
“Taking away rights to purchase tobacco doesn’t educate the youth,” said Vanessa Bautista. “Allow the voters to decide.”
Increasing fees, and fines for tobacco retailers that aren’t compliant is the smart and responsible thing to do.
All council members spoke on the ordinance and not a single one of them cited an increase in citations being issued to the retailers as an indicator that they are responsible for the city’s youth consuming either menthol or flavored tobacco products.