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Will a Special Election Save Menthol in San Francisco?

Voters to consider repealing ordinance prohibiting tobacco flavors

SAN FRANCISCO -- In what could become a new strategy to fight back growing efforts to ban flavored-tobacco products, voters in San Francisco will go to the polls June 5 to decide whether to repeal a 2017 ordinance that would take those products—including the popular staple menthol—off store shelves.

In June 2017, the city’s board of supervisors voted to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes, but last fall, a petition drive put the ban before voters, allowing them to decide the fate of not only menthol cigarettes but also flavored e-liquids and other flavored-tobacco products. The measure is called Proposition E.

Anticipation over a “yes” vote, which would lead to a menthol/flavor ban, has retailers such as Sam Habash, owner of Gabby Market and Deli in San Francisco, extremely frustrated. He told CSP Daily News that almost 50% of his cigarette sales come from menthol.

“If people want to smoke, they’ll smoke,” Habash said. “We had a new sugar tax [imposed recently], and I’m selling more Coke than before.”

If the ban holds, Habash said he’ll simply lose sales to retailers outside of the city.

Let’s Be Real San Francisco, a coalition of businesses and industry associations, spearheaded the petition efforts last summer to force the issue to a vote. It collected 33,941 signatures where 19,000 were required, according to CNBC. In the weeks leading up to the upcoming June vote, both sides of the debate have used radio, TV and online advertising to sway voters.

For his part, Habash was skeptical that the vote would ultimately reflect the wishes of the community. “Who gets to see the votes?” he said. “Nobody gets to watch. [The city] tells you what they want to.”

Despite Habash’s lack of faith in the process, both sides of the debate have shown passion. Those in favor of the ban cite concerns over public health. “The menthol and flavored-tobacco-products ban will save lives and reduce much suffering,” said Steve Heilig of the San Francisco Marin Medical Society in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle on April 10.

Flavored-tobacco and menthol bans or restrictions have passed in a half-dozen cities across the United States, including Chicago; Minneapolis; St. Paul, Minn.; and Oakland, Calif. The frustration Habash feels is often echoed among the retailing community in many of those cities. Last year, when the Minneapolis City Council voted to restrict the sale of menthol cigarettes to age-21-and-older establishments, Mia Lambert, co-owner of the Metro Petro convenience store, was taken aback. “It came so fast there’s no way [for lawmakers] to understand the impact it will have,” she said. “I feel victimized.”

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