Immigrant and minority-owned small businesses in San Francisco have long opposed the ban on the sale of flavored tobacco, but voters may not know it based on coverage in the media that dismisses any negative impact the ban would have on neighborhood stores.
More than a year ago, mom-and-pop store owners were taking time out of their day to go to City Hall to make their concerns clear, but no meaningful amendments were made to the ordinance, and no compensation was offered for banning an entire sector of their business.
“Immigrant rights” has an economic dimension. It does not exist in the abstract. Since the presidential election, local lawmakers have made great effort to juxtapose themselves to Donald Trump and stand in support of Arab and Muslim communities. But this outward support not only remains artificial, it has been used to whitewash material attacks on the livelihoods of these very same communities, right here in San Francisco.
For instance, The City already has a law aimed at reducing the sale of tobacco by restricting the transferring of tobacco licenses. For immigrant merchants, these licenses are the equivalent of a 401k, like a taxi medallion before they were devalued by companies like Uber and Lyft. Without foundational capital, immigrant communities will have fewer opportunities to succeed.
This is Small Business Week in San Francisco, which is quite ironic given that passing Proposition E would put 700 immigrant retailers in jeopardy. Meanwhile, online retailers and businesses just across The City’s borders will continue to flourish.
Many proponents of the ban believe simply adding more produce will make up for the loss of tobacco sales. The reality is that without an anchor product like tobacco, small stores cannot remain competitive with big box retailers. Regular customers who make the small cash purchases that keep the doors open will be lost.
I believe we should have real conversations about immigrant-owned businesses in historically black neighborhoods. But some Prop. E proponents have tried to use menthol sales as a wedge issue between the two communities. If they would come out of their ivory towers and nonprofit suites, they would see what we see: the years of solidarity and collaboration between communities.
The Arab American Grocers in the 1970s stood in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers. Today, merchants work with schools and community organizations like the Youth Leadership Institute, the Boys and Girls Club, Hospitality House, African American Arts and Culture Complex.
Just the other week, testimony at a Board of Appeals hearing for a corner store on Third Street illustrated how this solidarity continues. An immigrant-owned, family business of 40 years was being evicted for no reasonable cause or violation. The family wanted to move down the street to a blighted building but were being blocked from taking their tobacco license with them. The room was packed with Bayview residents giving testimony to the importance of having this community-serving business in the neighborhood and the need for it to retain its entire business model to survive.
At the end of the day, this is not a disagreement over the health concerns of tobacco products or the need for youth abatement programs. This is a plea to consider a more collaborative approach rather than one that intentionally pins vulnerable communities against each other while pushing more gentrification in our city.
Miriam Zouzounis is member of the Arab American Grocers Association whose family runs a corner market near City Hall. She is also an advisory board member for the Healthy Retail SF Program.