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SF bans sale of menthol cigarettes, may eliminate at least $50.5M in tobacco sales

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Packs of Menthol cigarettes are displayed for sale inside of SF Deli & Wine on Mission Street in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, June 20th, 2017. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Smokers ready to kick their menthol habit will have some help: beginning next April, the sale of flavored tobacco products will be illegal in San Francisco.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved legislation Tuesday introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen that prohibits retailers from selling flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored chewing tobacco and flavored liquids containing nicotine used in electronic cigarettes, which disproportionately impact the LGBT and black communities.

“We want to enhance our prevention strategies,” Cohen said. “The goal of this ordinance is to keep people from smoking in the first place.”

The ban drew opposition from small businesses, including the Small Business Commission which represents them, for the impact it would have on their bottom-lines and the concern that patrons would only shop online or in other counties for the same products. There are approximately 726 local retailers, most of which are small convenience stores or gas stations selling under 20 packs of cigarettes daily, that are permitted to sell tobacco products.

To address the business concerns, Cohen amended the legislation to have it go into effect in April 2018, four months after the initially proposed Jan. 1. She also said she would support increased city funding to help small stores transition their business models under the Healthy Food Retail program.

SEE RELATED: SF supes to take on contentious flavored tobacco ban

SEE RELATED: SF to ban sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes

People could still use flavored tobacco in San Francisco because the sale of such products is what will be banned. Retailers that violated the law could face the suspension of their tobacco sales permit, a decision up to the director of the Public Health Department, which issues those permits.

The legislation builds on a September 2009 U.S. Food and Drug Administration ban on “characterizing flavors” in cigarettes like strawberry or cinnamon.

The ban will impact a portion of the 15 percent — or 115,703 — of San Francisco adults who smoke cigarettes or use e-cigarettes and the 13 percent — or 4,440 — of youth between ages 12 and 17, based on estimates from Ted Egan, the chief economist with the City Controller’s Office of Economic Analysis.

The analysis found that 35 percent of cigarettes sold in San Francisco are menthols. Based on an average price of $8.50 per pack and the average number of packs sold per person at 212, the report found that menthol sales total $50.5 million annually.

Egan said in the report that The City does not have data on the amount of e-cigarettes or nicotine-based liquids sold.

The ban could have three general impacts, according to the report. There’s the intended result of getting people to reduce tobacco use. But consumers of flavored tobacco may switch to buying unflavored tobacco products, or simply buy such flavored tobacco products online or in other neighboring cities.

“If consumers choose to buy online, there would be a net loss to local retailers and The City’s economy, without any countervailing benefit,” the report said.

Reacting to the approval, Matthew Myers, president of the national nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, issued a statement praising the ban and calling on other Bay Area cities to follow suit.

“The evidence is clear that flavored tobacco products entice kids into tobacco addiction and harm the health of vulnerable communities,” Myers said in the statement. “By ending the sale of these products, San Francisco is taking another critical step to win the fight against tobacco and make the next generation tobacco-free.”

Angie Manetti, director of government relations for the California Retailers Association, which represents smaller retailers in the state, opposed the ban in a June 8 letter to the board, pointing to impacts on businesses, the loss of sales tax for The City and existing protections of sales to those under legal age.

“This ordinance also ignores the fact that there are comprehensive state and local laws, that anti-tobacco advocates support as a means to curb youth access to tobacco, that are currently enforced,” the letter reads in part.

Supervisors Jane Kim and Mark Farrell were absent from the meeting.

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