Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks during a news conference about a proposed vaping ban before a hearing on the proposal at City Hall on Friday, June 7, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Vaping sales ban nears approval in SF, setting stage for referendum fight

Legislation is intended to protect the health of youth who have embraced alternative form of tobacco

San Francisco is poised to ban the sale of vaping products throughout The City to protect the health of youths who have embraced the new form of tobacco.

The Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee voted 3-0 Friday in support of legislation introduced by Supervisor Shamann Walton that would ban the sale of vaping products, such as those manufactured by Juul, a San Francisco-based vape product manufacturer.

The committee recommended the full board approve the measure at its June 18 meeting. In addition to Walton, the legislation has the support of Supervisors Sandra Fewer, Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safai. Committee chair Supervisor Rafael Mandelman and Supervisor Catherine Stefani voted to support the legislation along with Walton. That means it appears to have the votes needed to pass.

Mandelman acknowledged he had several concerns with the measure, but that they were addressed during the hours-long hearing.

There is debate over whether e-cigarettes are less harmful than smoking cigarettes, but Mandelman said there is a lack of evidence for their use as harm reduction products.

“Although there are people who are speculating that maybe that is what it is, I am not hearing that from the medical community,” Mandelman said.

Noting that he was a proponent of recreational marijuana, Mandelman said he “wrestled” with whether “prohibition is the right approach with any kind of drugs,” but ultimately he was persuaded by the fact the legislation allows for the sale of the products if they are regulated by the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration.

Another concern Mandelman had was for the impact on small businesses. The Small Business Commission voted in April to oppose the legislation.

Walton said he was working with Fewer to create a working group with merchants “to figure out alternative revenue sources.”

“This is definitely not an attack on our small business, but it is an attack on harmful products,” Walton said.

Juul is currently working to overturn the expected approval of the ban through a signature-gathering campaign to place a referendum on the November ballot.

Juul, which subleases office space on Port of San Francisco’s Pier 70, has contributed $500,000 to the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation, including Neighborhood Grocers and Small Businesses, a political campaign committee with “major funding from Juul Labs.”

In a statement, Juul said that “We encourage the City of San Francisco to severely restrict youth access but do so in a way that preserves the opportunity to eliminate combustible cigarettes. This proposed legislation begs the question – why would the City be comfortable with combustible cigarettes being on shelves when we know they kill more than 480,000 Americans per year?”

At least two Juul employees spoke at the hearing arguing that their products are healthier than smoking cigarettes.

“It is important to reserve a choice for adults who are looking for an alternative,” Juul employee Jessica Baker said. She said she “would be devastated” if the family members Juul products have helped not smoke cigarettes didn’t have access to the product.

Others said Juul’s sleek product, which is designed to look like a USB device, and the fact that Marlboro maker Altria Group invested in the company shows it is big tobacco in a “new costume.”

Christine Chessen, a San Francisco mother of three and part of a group called Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes, said before the hearing that she is working “to halt the explosion of non-FDA approved e-cigarettes such as Juul that are creating a new generation of nicotine and tobacco users. My own son is now being treated for nicotine use thanks to Juul’s aggressive and predatory campaign to grow a brand new customer base for its addiction business.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams last year said there was an e-cigarette epidemic among the nation’s youth, noting that “e-cigarette use increased 78 percent among high school students during the past year, from 11.7 percent in 2017 to 20.8 percent in 2018.”

“In 2018, more than 3.6 million U.S. youth, including 1 in 5 high school students and 1 in 20 middle school students, currently use e-cigarettes,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine. Nicotine is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.”

Chris Chin, owner of Tenderloin vape shop, Gone with the Smoke on Geary Street, lamented before the hearing what would happen if the ban is approved.

“As a 100 percent vapor shop, I am 100 percent out of business. I’m on the hook for a lease and I got unemployed employees.”

He didn’t think it right for The City to tell adults what to do.

“Don’t let the city be your nanny,” Chin said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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