After hearing impassioned pleas from several proponents of a ban on flavored tobacco products on Aug. 5, the Hollister City Council voted 3-2 not to amend the city’s municipal code to require the licensing of tobacco retailers, setting in motion another attempt to draft a stricter ordinance or an outright ban.
In February 2018, students and healthcare professionals in Hollister began attempting to convince local lawmakers to restrict or ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, and in 2014 the San Benito County Health and Human Services Agency released a report indicating tobacco and alcohol companies were targeting children.
City Attorney Jason Epperson said the proposed changes to the city’s license permits, based on recommendations from an ad hoc committee made up of councilmembers Honor Spencer and Carol Lenoir, would add vaping devices and flavored tobacco products and limit the sales licenses to locations at least 1,000 feet away from schools and parks. Current license holders would be grandfathered into the ordinance to allow them to continue selling tobacco products. He also said inspections would be increased from one to four times a year, and that fines would be increased and product could be removed from shelves.
Several students and healthcare workers, however, spoke to the council in support of a ban rather than an amendment. Elain Norisco, health assistant with the San Benito County Public Health Services, said while the ad hoc committee’s efforts were appreciated, she said that Public Health Services still supported a ban targeting flavored tobacco products.
Diana Lopez, also with Public Health Services, pointed out that despite a 2006 tobacco sales ordinance requiring at least one compliance inspection a year, over the last 13 years there has been only one inspection.
Vanessa Sanchez, a student at San Benito High School, said she had not seen any change regarding the availability of flavored tobacco products to youth one year after speaking to the council. She said she has repeatedly seen students vaping at the high school in Baler Alley or in bathrooms.
Dr. Marni Friedman, a family medicine doctor, said reports from the California Medical Association, the California Attorney General, and the California Department of Public Health all favored local policies preventing the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products.
“The response of cities throughout California has been bans on their sales,” she said. “The proposed ordinance will have no real impact on access. Regarding the argument that children will just go to another city that requires a car and a driver’s license, we should take advantage of our community’s geographic isolation to remove easy access to these substances. Let’s make it impossible for flavored tobacco to be an impulse purchase for our youth.”
Friedman said that children and teens are targets of the tobacco industry to replace smokers who quit or die.
“They are the easiest to addict and almost 90% of U.S. adult smokers tried their first cigarette before the age of 18,” she said. “The sweet flavors like watermelon, mint and gummy bear appeal to youth as they mask the harsh taste of tobacco. Tobacco is the only industry allowed to legally sell a product that will kill half of its users.”
Lenoir said she has always been against a ban because she also represents retailers. She said she understood the ban proponents’ disappointment, but hoped they would work with the city.
“The issue is enforcement,” she said. “You guys should never be able to get your hands on it, so why would we ban it from everybody when the issue is the retailers should not be selling to people under 21?”
Spencer, who works at San Benito High School, admitted she did say at one time she wanted a citywide ban. Even though she would still like to see a ban, she said she now agrees with Lenoir that holding retailers and clerks responsible would be more effective.
“I went with this because these are the strictest laws that we can impose,” Spencer said. “If it doesn’t work, we can come back and then we will do a ban.”
Councilman Rolan Resendiz said if laws are not enforced there wasn’t much point to them. He said an industry is marketing to youth and that he was disappointed in the way things have changed, but he still supports at least a partial ban. He said he could not support the resolution to amend the ordinance.
“I want to say I’m surprised, but I’m not, considering at how things work here,” he said regarding the ad hoc committee’s work to amend the current ordinance rather than institute a ban.
Councilman Marty Richman reminded the audience that when the topic was first brought to the council in 2018, he proposed a six-month trial ban to test its enforceability. That proposal was not adopted. He added that even though the amendment wasn’t what ban proponents wanted, it was better than nothing.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said the ordinance would not accomplish anything. He said he was stunned when he heard San Francisco put a ban in place and hoped for better from the Hollister ad hoc committee.
“This is a battle,” Velazquez said. “I know you guys [Lenoir and Spencer] worked hard to make this thing happen, but we have to go back to the drawing board because this is taking over our community. I recommend we don’t approve this tonight and see what San Francisco did.”
When Resendiz also suggested Hollister follow the lead of progressive cities, City Manager Bill Avera pointed out that San Francisco’s ban was a result of a voter-approved initiative, not because of its city council. He said there are 26 retailers who sell tobacco products that the ad hoc committee spoke to, in addition to the county health department and youth.
“This wasn’t written in a vacuum and if you come back with a ban I would expect you to see every retailer in here,” Avera said. “This is not just about vaping. It’s flavored tobacco, chewing tobacco, all that stuff. That presents a unique economic dynamic for those businesses. As frustrating as it is, that’s the reality. If we want to establish another ad hoc committee to take a crack at it, I’m sure Honor and Carol will be more than happy to move in that direction.”
Lenoir asked to be replaced on the ad hoc committee because she could not support a ban, at which time Resendiz said he would gladly take Lenoir’s place to work on a ban. He said he was willing to adopt the resolution as they moved toward more restrictive measures.
“Working on a ban is easy. What we did wasn’t easy,” Lenoir said. “I’ll have the retailers give you a call.”
Even though Resendiz and Richman had indicated they could vote for the resolution, they both joined Velazquez in voting against it, which would leave the original ordinance in place as the new ad hoc committee—made up of Spencer and Resendiz—begins the process anew.
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