There are no limits on the number of businesses that can sell tobacco products in San Francisco. There are nearly 1,000, with heavy concentrations in lower-income neighborhoods.
But that would change under an effort that began in 2008 and is up for debate at City Hall today.
The proposal would cap the number of tobacco-sales permits at 45 in each of the 11 Board of Supervisors districts. That includes the sale of e-cigarettes.
With each district exceeding that cap now, no new permits would be issued. It's expected that through attrition it would take 10 to 15 years to halve the existing number of tobacco permits.
And when The City did issue new permits they would come with added restrictions such as no tobacco-selling business within 500 feet of another one or a school. There would also be an outright ban on shops in which more than 50 percent of business is dedicated to tobacco products and paraphernalia.
“The six supervisorial districts with the highest proportions of tobacco retail by population [districts 3, 5, 6, 9, 10 and 11] also have the lowest median household incomes in the city,” the legislation reads.
Supporters say the proliferation of tobacco-selling outlets creates a “social norm” and increases young people's chances to become tobacco users.
The Youth Leadership Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to issues young people face, has long called for tobacco-density controls.
“We need to level the playing field in order to create health equity,” said Patricia Barahona, a senior director with the institute.
Supervisor Eric Mar introduced the proposal, which is being voted on today by the board's Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee.
“We think it will gradually prevent the oversaturation,” Mar said. “We think it will have an important impact.”
The City already is working with stores that have long relied on selling tobacco and alcohol to make a profit to help them transition to selling healthier products.
Even with increased restrictions and the high cost of cigarettes, tobacco use continues. The sales of cigarettes increased in San Francisco, according to data released last year by the City Controller's Office that was based on the 20-cent litter fee imposed on each pack of cigarettes sold here since 2009.
But while San Francisco has had success in imposing anti-smoking regulations, efforts to curtail use of other health-compromising products like soda remain elusive.
In November, voters rejected a two-cent per ounce tax on the purchase of sugary beverages such as soda.
“There is a 50-year experience in battling Big Tobacco,” Mar said. “It is in the public consciousness that smoking, especially for kids, is very bad.”
But when it comes to soda and junk food, society is not quite there yet. Still, Mar said the public is at a “tipping point” in understanding the impact of those products.