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Saving San Francisco’s ban on candy-flavored tobacco products

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A wave of menthol bans have been adopted around the nation in 2016, and five U.S. senators introduced legislation to ban the sales of menthol cigarettes nationally. (Mira Laing/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

Have you been approached by a “No on Proposition E” person on the street or received their campaign flyers in the mail or seen them online or on television? Chances are you have. They are fully funded by the tobacco industry and have lots of money for this media blitz. And here is why they are worried enough to spend more than $11 million of it to trick San Franciscans.

In a 1970s tobacco industry document, Claude Teague of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company wrote, “… if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term we must get our share of the youth market.” This sentiment was reinforced by the sales team at Lorillard, which echoed, “The base of our business is the high school student.” Over the following decades, the tobacco industry created “Joe Camel,” marketed heavily around high schools, and created candy-flavored tobacco products to target youth, which, alas, too often has worked to introduce them to smoking.

Another sweetener used by the tobacco industry is menthol. Menthol is a soothing agent that masks the irritating nature of tobacco smoke on the airway. Eliminating menthol exposes the harshness of cigarettes and results in more smokers quitting on their own by reducing the addictive characteristics of cigarettes.

SEE RELATED: Flavored tobacco ban is bad policy for a bad choice

In 2011, the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee concluded that “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.” The implementation of that recommendation to ban menthol was delayed for years by a lawsuit filed by, yes, Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds. As that case moved through American courts, other countries led the way; first Brazil in 2012, then the European Parliament, Ethiopia, Moldova, Turkey and five provinces in Canada all passed menthol bans, with more coming.

In 2016, a federal appeals court ruled against the tobacco industry lawsuit, opening the door for menthol to be banned as a cigarette additive in America. Since then, a wave of menthol bans have been adopted around the nation, and five U.S. senators introduced legislation to ban the sales of menthol cigarettes nationally.

The San Francisco ban that passed City Hall unanimously, and became the final piece of public health legislation signed by late Mayor Ed Lee, was the most visionary of all. Consistent with San Francisco’s tradition as a national leader in tobacco control, the law was expanded to ban not only menthol but all flavorings in tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.

The tobacco industry raises overheated fears about “prohibition,” criminalization and arrests, but the truth is the only penalty written into the legislation will be for retailers who violate the ban, who would have to surrender their tobacco sales licenses, just as with selling alcohol to minors. Opponents also say the ban will drive small businesses out of town, which was said when San Francisco banned smoking in restaurants — and that wasn’t true then either.

Want to know what the tobacco industry thinks of its own customers? When an R.J. Reynolds executive was asked if he used his own products, he replied, “We don’t smoke that s—. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and stupid.”

San Francisco voters will decide the fate of The City’s menthol and flavored tobacco products ban. Don’t be fooled by the tobacco industry and their hired guns, who only want your money at the expense of your health.

Dr. John Maa is president of the San Francisco Marin Medical Society. Steve Heilig is director of public health at the San Francisco Marin Medical Society and was a co-chair of the San Francisco Tobacco-Free Coalition in the 1990s.

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