Mayor Breed will be speaking at the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Association’s annual “Future Forward” gala celebration, which counts JUUL as one of their sponsors, on May 15. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

As SF seeks vape ban, JUUL- drops money into small merchants gala

It’s that time again folks. Check your calendars, ignore your mailboxes.

On Guard column header Joe

It’s that time again folks. Check your calendars, ignore your mailboxes.

Corporate dollars are about to flow again in an effort to stem a potential ban in San Francisco.

In 2014 and 2016 the fight was Big Soda vs. San Francisco, as millions flooded in from Coca-Cola and more while the Board of Supervisors fought for the health of our children.

Now it’s deja-vu all over again, as vape company JUUL drops money into San Francisco to counter Supervisor Shamann Walton and City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s proposed e-cigarette cartridge ban.

As always, it starts with a trickle.

JUUL ponied up $7,500 to become a “Platinum Sponsor” of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Association’s annual “Future Forward” gala celebration.

That’s a great way to earn some goodwill among small businesses. And while it doesn’t seem like a lot of money, to small groups like this it certainly makes a difference.

The star-studded event will feature Mayor London Breed as a speaker May 15 at the Olympic Club.

But some merchant groups are telling me accepting JUUL’s money puts them in a politically thorny position — they haven’t all voted on whether or not to endorse Walton’s vape ban, but accepting money from JUUL for the gala certainly makes it look like they’re in one camp over another.

“We’re not necessarily dictating to them what they should do, we’re just talking about what makes our neighborhood unique,” said Danny Macciarini, president of the North Beach Business Association.

But, he added, “we do have a concern about an organization (dealing) with this big corporate interest.”

It isn’t even the first time the North Beach Business Association has taken issue with the council of district merchants’ donors: Macciarini said they also objected to the council accepting money from Airbnb, who is again a sponsor of the gala this year.

“We had a discussion about a year ago about whether we’d even stay in the council of district merchants,” Macciarini said.

And this issue echoes that.

Supervisor Walton did not respond to my requests for comment. I asked Mayor Breed’s office if speaking at the gala — while sponsored by JUUL — shows tacit approval of vaping. Her spokesperson said while she has concerns about vaping, she hasn’t committed to supporting the ban’s legislation yet.

“Mayor Breed is going to speak at the Council of District Merchants Association Gala to support the many small businesses that are an important part of our neighborhoods and our City,” said Jeff Cretan, the mayor’s spokesperson. “The Mayor has talked with Supervisor Walton and the City Attorney about what they are trying to do and she is committed to working with them to address this public health issue.”

Teen use of vaping spiked in 2018, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which called vape usage among teens an “epidemic.”

Maryo Mogannam, president of the council of district merchants, told me he understands that worry.

“I have two teenage daughters” who go to school in San Francisco, he said. “They both talk about the vaping issue. It’s serious.”

However, he added, you also have to take a look at the merchants’ side of things: From the 2016 soda tax and The City’s imposed fee for plastic bags, to the state forcing small liquor stores to handle bottle recycling, small merchants are pounded with taxes and onerous requirements.

“I think it’s extremely harsh,” Mogannam said, “theoretically, this could put merchants out of business.”

And you know what? He’s right — small merchants absolutely get a raw deal in San Francisco.That’s real.

But what’s also real is kid’s health, and the amount of money big industries will spend to protect their profit no matter the societal costs.

The soda industry poured $25 million into its fight against the sugary beverage tax in San Francisco.

That’s. Effing. Bonkers.

There are Senate races across the United States with far less spent than that. That very same amount of money may be on the way to fight a potential vape ban. Previously, my column exposed JUUL hired two well-known campaign consultants, David Ho and Nate Allbee, in a bid to strongarm The City at the ballot.

And like every previous ballot fight, all those millions start flowing first in tiny groups much like the council of district merchants.

It reminds me of 2014, when the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club took $45,000 from the beverage industry which journalists then claimed was a “desperate” bid to fund mailers supporting then-Supervisor David Campos’ assembly race. I recall an incredible, ceiling-shattering volume of outrage from political moderates about the donation to the historically progressive group.

I even joined in, skewering the club for accepting the donation in the pages of the SF Weekly, much to Campos’ dismay.

So where is all of your outrage now, moderates? Where are the calls on Mayor Breed to denounce JUUL at the small merchants gala?

I’ll make sure to hold my breath — but not while vaping. That’s just gross.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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