Flavored tobacco, including menthol cigarettes, will be off the shelf in January

Sebastian Ibarra
Staff Writer

California will have the toughest state restrictions on flavored tobacco in the country, thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 28. 

Senate Bill 793, authored by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, prohibits tobacco retailers or any of the tobacco retailers’ employees from selling, offering for sale, or possessing with the intent to sell a flavored tobacco product or a tobacco flavor enhancer. This includes  menthol cigarettes, one of the most popular flavors. 

The intention of the bill was to curb the tobacco industry’s targeting children and teens, to whom flavored tobacco products are aimed. 

Flavored tobacco became a target of the bill because of the fact that these flavors mask the harm of tobacco, said Amanda Staples, community advocacy director at the American Heart Association.

“It is the perfect storm to get youth hooked,” Staples said.

Staples said that 90% of current smokers started before the age of 18. 

Hill noted that the average age of a beginning smoker is 13 years old, with 80% starting with flavored tobacco products. 

“It was an issue of justice,” Hill said. “The tobacco industry knows that they have to get to you early.” 

The major difference that allowed this law to pass where previous similar efforts have fallen short was widespread local support across California, Staples said. She said that before the statewide measure there were already 80 cities here with flavored tobacco restrictions. 

Hill said that new data on the health dangers of  e-cigarettes and their addictive nature among  youth, with COVID-19’s effect on those with respiratory problems and compromised health because of smoking, made the new law particularly important. 

Staples predicts that the new law will impact the rest of the country because California has signaled to the other 49 states that public health is a priority. 

“As California goes so does the country,” said Staples. 

Staples saw the inclusion of popular menthol cigarettes as a win for proponents of the new law. She said that a ban on menthol cigarettes in Canada has seen good positive results. Staples believes that when people are unable to buy the menthol cigarettes, it may help them decide to quit smoking. 

Philip Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said that the new law is what he and his group have been working on for  years – to try and restrict the sale of menthols that he says target the African-American community. Approximately 45,000 African Americans die from smoking-related disease each year, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ statistics on tobacco use among African Americans for 2020. Smoking-related illnesses surpass AIDS, homicide, diabetes, and accidents as the number one cause of death for African Americans, according to this report. 

Menthol cigarettes accounted for 30% to 35% of the tobacco industry’s profits in 2017, Gardiner said. He added that smoking rates are down, but menthol usage rates are up because current smokers are using menthols. 

“It’s their lifeblood,” said Gardiner. 

Hill said that his motivation for writing this law was to prevent the threat that flavored tobacco posed to children’s safety. He explained that the reason children are targeted is because no one wakes up at the age of 26 and wants to start smoking. 

Hill has firsthand knowledge of how much influence flavors can have on a person’s experience with tobacco. When he was around the age of 13, he took one of his mother’s cigarettes and started to smoke it. He ultimately did not finish it and avoided going down the same path as a lot of America’s youth. 

“If it was a menthol who knows if I would have finished it,” Hill said. 

Premium cigars and hookah tobacco were two notable omissions from the law. Both were omitted in order to compromise with the opposition. 

Hill said his choice would be to not exempt these two products, but  he weighed the importance of the inclusion of premium cigars and hookah tobacco in the bill, against the goal of seeing the legislation approved. Hill explained that a hookah is not a daily use item and children will not spend $12 on a cigar. Therefore, he determined that the reward of the passing of this year’s law was worth the exclusion of the two products because they both were not a threat to the goal of the legislation. SB 793 will take effect Jan. 1, 2021. 

Sebastian Ibarra can be reached at sebastian.ibarra@laverne.edu.

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