After nearly a year of vehement opposition from Sonoma County retailers, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved sweeping new anti-tobacco regulations aimed at making cigarettes more expensive and more difficult for minors to obtain.
The new laws make Sonoma County the first local government in California to establish a price floor for cigarettes, county officials said. Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, cigarettes must sell for a minimum of $7 a pack.
The ordinance, which will be phased in between now and 2018, also takes aim at big tobacco companies that county officials argue market their products directly to people under 18.
“This is the right thing to do for the county,” said Chairman Efren Carrillo. “Smoking tobacco is bad. I think we can all agree that the cost to the health care system and public health is not good.”
In addition to the price floor, the new county rules will require roughly 140 retailers outside city limits to purchase an annual tobacco retail license by July 1 of this year. The price is not yet set, but county officials are recommending an annual license fee of $350 per store for the first two years. The price could go up after that.
The ordinance also classifies electronic cigarettes as tobacco products. New tobacco shops now are banned within 1,000 feet of schools, and existing retailers near schools can only transfer their licenses to immediate family members. Retailers found selling to minors will have their licenses suspended. If there are four or more violations in five years, licenses will be revoked.
The premise behind the campaign is that the higher cost of tobacco products — including cigarettes, chewing tobacco and cigars — and the bolstered enforcement of laws prohibiting sale of tobacco products to people under 18 will cut down on tobacco use by minors.
County health officials touted the regulations as the most comprehensive anti-smoking effort undertaken in California.
“What we’ve put in place to reduce smoking is more than anything we’ve seen in the state,” said Stephan Betz, the county’s health director. ”We know that nicotine is a very addictive substance and the majority of kids start before 18. This is far-reaching in that it will reduce youth access to tobacco products.”
Some supervisors said the rules did not go far enough.
“I’m disappointed, but hopeful we can strengthen what we did today,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, citing a plan to seek approval of similar ordinances in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Cotati, Sebastopol and Cloverdale.
Healdsburg and Sonoma, which already require tobacco retailers to purchase an annual license, could strengthen their ordinances, Zane said.
She argued the minimum cost per pack should have been higher, and put in place sooner.
Others, including Supervisors David Rabbitt and James Gore, said they were concerned about the financial impact on businesses if cities do not adopt minimum pricing rules, because people will be able to purchase cigarettes elsewhere.
Does “minimum pricing attack underage smoking,” Rabbitt asked. “Or just smoking in general?”
During Tuesday’s three-hour hearing, retailers testified that new regulations would put them out of business, while high school students and anti-smoking advocates applauded the board’s effort to reduce underage smoking. The public hearing reached emotional high points for some supervisors, as well as supporters and detractors.