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.
“We have had two casualties in my family because of smoking. It’s sad to me that some of my friends smoke because that could happen to them,” said Alex Diaz Peña, a junior at El Molino High School in Forestville. “I believe this (ordinance) can save a lot of pain, and ultimately, lives.”
Local shop owners argued against new county rules, with some saying e-cigarettes actually help people stop smoking, and others arguing that customers seeking cheaper cigarettes will not shop at their stores.
“We’re outraged,” said Ed Turner, part owner of the Airport Business Center, which also owns the Chevron on Aviation Boulevard in north Santa Rosa. “The minimum pricing will do nothing but punish the 140 stores in the unincorporated areas.”
At one point, Carlos Lopez, a supporter of the new regulations, held up a sign depicting a store plastered with discount cigarette signs near a Roseland health clinic. The photo showed the store advertising cigarettes for as low as $3.39 a pack. Retailers are commonly offered incentives to lower cigarette prices in exchange for displaying advertising from tobacco companies. The current average price of a pack of cigarettes in California is $5.76.
“To me, this is disturbing,” Lopez said. “I have a message for retailers: Stop poisoning our children, our youth.”
Supervisors were split on some details in the proposal. One rejected provision would have eliminated the ability for stores to sell individual cigars and cigarillos.
The new annual license will fund health department and law enforcement stings targeting sales of tobacco to minors. Retailers cited with one violation in five years will face a 30-day suspension, or five days for admitting guilt. They would be required to pay $1,500. The penalty for two violations in five years is a 60-day suspension, or 15 days with a $5,500 penalty payment.
Retailers would not be allowed to transfer their license if they receive three violations.
Harman Dhillon, who said he and his family own 13 stores in the county, characterized the penalties as extreme and said his family could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He said, however, that he was happy that some of provisions were eliminated.
“It wasn’t what we were expecting but could have been worse,” Dhillon said.
A public hearing to set the license fee is scheduled for April 29. Supervisors are expected to subsidize the program for the first two years, at a potential cost of $580,000.