A fee The City tacks on to sales of tobacco might not be slowing down cigarette sales, but San Francisco is exploring ways to thin out the number of businesses where people can buy such products.
About 12.5 million packs of cigarettes were sold in San Francisco last fiscal year, which is up from previous years based on data associated with the 20-cent surcharge. The fee is used to mitigate garbage on city streets caused by discarded cigarettes.
Any potential permitting changes won’t happen overnight. The legislation, which Supervisor Eric Mar said he plans to introduce next month, would set caps on the total tobacco sales permits allowed in neighborhoods with existing high concentrations, such as the Tenderloin, Bayview, Chinatown and Mission.
Then when there is business turnover, new tobacco permits won’t be issued if they exceed those caps.
Mar said the exact cap on tobacco-selling permits per area is still being discussed. He is partnering with the Youth Leadership Institute, the nonprofit that has been working on the proposal for more than a year.
Matt Rosen, vice president of programs at the Youth Leadership Institute, said that where there is a high density of tobacco sellers — such as two on the same block or a few hundred in one neighborhood, as is the case in the Tenderloin — youths in those areas are more likely to start smoking and existing smokers are less likely to ever quit.
“There will be attrition so that in 10 years, 15 years we will see that line drop significantly,” Rosen said of tobacco businesses. He added that no one is “interested in taking any permit” from an existing business, noting that many have established business models based upon tobacco sales revenue.
There are 956 tobacco sales permits in San Francisco, according to Public Health Department data. That’s down from the 1,001 issued in 2011. The permits are applied for on an annual basis and cost $175.
Reducing tobacco sellers could also reduce cigarette litter, which was the intention of the 2009 litter fee adopted by the Board of Supervisors that offsets cleanup costs. It’s been in place for the past 3½ fiscal years.
Last fiscal year, the 20-cent fee generated more than $2.5 million. That amounts to the sale of roughly 12 million packs of cigarettes. In fiscal year 2011-12, the fee generated $2.41 million. Three years ago, the first full year of the fee, $2.47 million was collected.
The pack tally isn’t exact since it includes “a small amount of nonpayment and also the revenue includes a small amount of penalties and interest,” according to the City Controller’s Office.
The fee revenue helps fund street cleanup by the Department of Public Works, which last fiscal year spent $16.6 million on litter cleanup. An additional $1.9 million was spent on steam cleaning.
Department of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said cigarette litter remains a problem.
“It is one of the major causes of litter in San Francisco,” Gordon said. She added that the problem is most prevalent around places that sell tobacco products, such as mom-and-pop shops in the Tenderloin, Muni bus stops and outside of bars.
For anti-tobacco advocates such as Mar, the sale numbers only reaffirm the need for increased measures to try and curb smoking. “We need to do much more,” he said.
Recent past efforts include increasing no-smoking areas and banning the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies.
Permits to sell tobacco
The following shows the concentration of such permits in San Francisco:
San Francisco’s 20-cent charge on tobacco product purchases, such as cigarettes, is a liter-abatement fee. It has been in existence for three full fiscal years.
Year — Estimated packs sold
Source: City Controller’s Office