Signs asking to “stop the vapor ban” hanging in Discount Cigarettes Smoke Shop on Kearny St. on Friday, April 26, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

SF commission says e-cigarette ban will hurt small businesses

Commission chair says ‘city is being a nanny again’

San Francisco’s Small Business Commission is opposing a proposed ban on the sale of vaping products, calling it a “nanny” state measure and arguing it could hurt many small stores.

The commission’s 6-1 vote last week sends a strong message to the Board of Supervisors, which will vote in the coming weeks on the legislation introduced by Supervisor Shamann Walton.

The proposal would ban the sale of e-cigarettes until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration evaluates the products’ impact on public health and approves their marketing.

Walton refused to make any amendments to his proposal when presenting his legislation to the commission last week.

“I care more about our youth then I do about profits,” Walton said.

He said that the accessibility of vaping products in stores is one reason why youth have access to the products, which contain the harmful chemical nicotine.

Any store selling tobacco products in San Francisco, including e-cigarettes, requires a permit from the Department of Public Health. These permits are on the decline as a result of a 2014 law imposing a limit on the number allowed in each supervisorial district. In 2014 there were 970 tobacco sales permits, but that has declined to 738.

Commissioners had sharp words for the proposal.

“You’re harming small business,” said Stephen Adams, Small Business Commission president. “Here the city is being a nanny again. I am sitting up here ready to explode, thinking we are punishing good people who are following the laws.”

Adams said these businesses have already taken a hit from the recent passage of a ban on flavored tobacco like menthol cigarettes.

“I can’t tell you how many store owners I have talked to who have lost revenue over the flavored tobacco ban,” Adams said. “Yet, I know people who are driving down to Daly City to buy cartons of cigarettes. It’s kind of a joke.”

Sharky Laguana was the only Small Business Commissioner to support the law, but he said “this is not an easy call.”

“I am deeply uncomfortable with how much of a challenge this is going to be for a small number of businesses and yet I am also deeply concerned about the impact on youth,” Laguana said.

Rwhi Zeidan, owner of Discount Cigarettes in Chinatown for the past seven years, told the San Francisco Examiner Friday that his business has lost $15,000, or 25 percent of sales, in each of the past three months since the flavored tobacco ban went into effect. He is worried the vape ban will deal a similar blow to his business.

Zeidan asked Walton during the meeting Monday why he is banning e-cigarettes when many argue they are a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes. He said Walton should instead focus on childhood obesity, a larger health concern for the youth.

“We need to pay mortgages. We need to cover our expenses for our family,” he told Walton. “I have this business just to live.”

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement April 3 regarding reports some people are experiencing seizures following use of e-cigarettes.

“While we believe that currently addicted adult smokers who completely switch off of combustible tobacco and onto e-cigarettes have the potential to improve their health, e-cigarettes still pose health risks,” the statement said. “These include the possible release of some chemicals at higher levels than conventional cigarettes.”

Kathleen Dooley, Small Business Commissioner, said that she has friends who switched from smoking tobacco to e-cigarettes and they “are 100 percent healthier now.”

“I just see this as going down a rocky road. What next are you going to say is unhealthy?” Dooley said. “Perhaps the next ban will be that we can’t sell them candy.”

Commissioners expressed concern about the amount of time businesses would have to comply with the law.

According to Walton’s staff, the law will become operative six months after its effective date.

The commission did vote unanimously to support another anti-electronic cigarette proposal from Walton. Separate legislation he introduced would extend the existing ban on the sale, manufacture, distribution of tobacco products on city property to include electronic cigarettes. The existing exemption for the San Francisco International Airport remains in his proposal. It also makes clear that the ban applies to city leases and subleases.

The proposal comes as city officials have criticized the vaping company JUUL’s presence on Pier 70, in a space they are legally subleasing.

“This law right now cannot be applied retroactively. Of course, we would love JUUL to be removed from their lease on city property,” Walton said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to remove incorrect information about the time frame in which this legislation would be implemented.

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