San Francisco Menthol Ban Puts Millions in Tobacco Sales in Jeopardy

New law may cut tobacco category by 35%, city research says

SAN FRANCISCO – Although California may be known for earthquakes, San Francisco could rock the c-store channel to its core, with its board of supervisors banning the sale of menthol cigarettes—a move that could slash the tobacco category in the city as much as 35% when the law goes into effect next year, according to one state estimate.

Through a press contact at the board of supervisors, CSP Daily News confirmed that the board’s unanimous approval of the menthol ban June 20 has led to its passage into law, with an implementation date set for April 2018.

The measure’s passing comes soon after Ted Egan, chief economist for San Francisco’s controller’s office, issued a report detailing the ban’s potential economic effects. In the report dated June 13, Egan said the ban—which affects all tobacco flavors, including menthol—could cost the city $50.5 million in annual sales, with an average smoker consuming 212 packs annually at a cost of $8.50 per pack.

While the ban’s goal of reducing tobacco use may be the result, the report also suggests that smokers may simply switch to other types of tobacco or buy flavored products in other cities or online.

Based on city records, the ban would affect 726 retailers.

“Most of these retailers are small convenience stores or gasoline stations that sell fewer than 20 packs of cigarettes per day,” the report said. “We have no information on how many sell flavored cigarettes that would be subject to the ban.”

The report, however, cited the California Department of Public Health as estimating 35% of cigarettes sold are menthol-flavored.

The legislation itself amends San Francisco health codes to prohibit local tobacco retailers from selling flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored chewing tobacco and flavored liquids containing nicotine designed to be used with electronic cigarettes. It does not criminalize the possession or use of flavored tobacco, only its sale by retailers within the city.

In its original form, the law was supposed to take effect in January 2018, but according to the San Francisco Examiner, Supervisor Malia Cohen, who introduced the bill, pushed enforcement back by four months to April 2018 to address business concerns. According to the Examiner, Cohen said she would support increases in funding for small stores so they could transition their business models to reflect the city’s Healthy Food Retail program.

Since the measure’s initial proposal in April, San Francisco-area retailers and tobacco association representatives have expressed vigorous opposition to the measure, saying it would endanger the viability of their businesses.

Here’s a quick update on California counties and cities that have banned or are considering bans on menthol as part of a larger pushback on flavored-tobacco products:

  • Menthol Bans. Municipalities with some form of flavor ban that includes menthol cigarettes: Yolo and Santa Clara counties in California, and Los Gatos, Calif., according to the Antioch Herald. San Francisco’s flavor ban, which includes menthol-flavored tobacco products, will take effect in April 2018.
  • Flavor Bans. Several cities have some form of flavored-tobacco ban involving menthol. For instance, the city of El Cerrito, Calif., banned the sale of flavored tobacco to youth under 21, according to the Antioch Herald. Other cities with various types of restrictions of menthol include Berkley, Hayward and Sonoma, Calif., said the East Bay Times.
  • Considering Flavor Bans. Contra Costa County in California will consider outlawing the sale of flavored tobacco to youth at either its July 11 or July 18 meeting, according to the Antioch Herald. Meanwhile, the city of San Leandro postponed a decision until September on a more encompassing tobacco ordinance that included a flavor ban, the East Bay Times said.

At a public rally in April, Oakland, Calif., lawmakers stood in solidarity with legislators in San Francisco to ban menthol cigarettes, but according to the San Francisco Examiner, Oakland is still considering its own proposal on the matter.

One of the latest cities to consider an ordinance is Minneapolis, with councilmen introducing legislation June 16 that would include menthol in its current tobacco-flavor ban.

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