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Tobacco industry gathers signatures to overturn SF’s menthol ban

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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)

Big tobacco is coming for San Francisco.

Less than a month after a law banning flavored tobacco sales — including menthol — was approved by the Board of Supervisors, the tobacco industry is gathering signatures in The City to overturn it.

The draft title of a proposed measure, “Referenda: Repeal of Ordinance Banning the Sale of Flavored Tobacco Products” was filed Friday with the Department of Elections.

“We’re trying to overturn the ban,” said Jaime Rojas, a spokesperson for the newly formed Let’s Be Real San Francisco campaign, who added that the “government has overreached on this issue.”

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

Supervisor Malia Cohen, who authored the measure, previously told the San Francisco Examiner that the goal of the ordinance is to keep people from smoking in the first place.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved legislation in late June that prohibits retailers from selling flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, flavored chewing tobacco and flavored liquids containing nicotine used in electronic cigarettes. Flavored tobacco has been found to disproportionately impact the LGBT and black communities.

The referenda against the ban was filed by law firm Nielsen Merksamer, which counts Altria Client Services Inc., formerly Philip Morris, among its clients.

“They are major donors, absolutely,” Rojas said when asked about large tobacco companies.

The measure needs 20,000 signatures by Aug. 7 to qualify the ballot. The next scheduled election is June 2018.

The tobacco industry’s foray into San Francisco politics may echo campaigns brought by Big Soda and Airbnb, according to a local political consultant. In each of those campaigns, millions of dollars from outside industries flooded doorsteps with mailers and airwaves with commercials.

“What they want to do is not just beat this ballot measure in San Francisco,” said Jim Ross, a political consultant. “They want to send a message to other counties that they’re going to spend boatloads of money to make sure the measure fails.”

Paid signature drive company Bay Area Petitions is offering five dollars for every autograph, according to a voicemail line the company uses to communicate with its workers.

As the Examiner previously reported, an analysis by the City Controller 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.

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