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Sonoma County supervisors delay tobacco law vote again

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voiced support for a controversial proposal that would impose sweeping new regulations on tobacco retailers aimed at making it more difficult for kids and teens to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products. But they delayed their final vote for a second time after hearing widespread opposition from area business owners.

Under the proposed ordinance first unveiled in April, the county would require roughly 140 stores outside city limits that sell tobacco products to pay a $630 annual licensing fee starting next year, and in 2017, raise the price per pack of cigarettes to a minimum of $7. New rules would also classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

Businesses found selling tobacco products to minors repeatedly would lose their licenses and could face financial penalties. Revenue collected by the county health department would be used to police stores that sell cigarettes, e-cigarettes and cigars to ensure they’re not selling to people who are underage, as well as to conduct sting operations targeting repeat violators.

Supervisors on Tuesday extended the public hearing until Nov. 10, when they are expected to vote on new regulations.

The proposal, hailed by anti-smoking advocates as one of the most comprehensive smoking ordinances in California, drew sharp criticism during a three-hour hearing from tobacco retailers, who said new rules would impose a steep financial burden on their businesses, and new fees would unfairly punish them for selling to minors - regardless if they’ve done it or not.

“We are all working to survive, and more fees are not going to help us, they’re going to hurt us,” said Amarjeet Saggu, who owns Ray’s Food Center on Dutton Avenue in Santa Rosa. “There are already laws on the books preventing sale of cigarettes to minors... We should be focusing on education.”

Tuesday also featured new voices in the debate, those of four teens who said they have experienced aggressive marketing from tobacco companies.

“I see it on the bus, I see it in the classroom, I see it in the restroom, I see it everywhere,” said Alexis Diaz Peña, a junior at El Molino High School in Forestville. “And I’ve personally seen the cool substance eat away at some of my loved ones. If people saw what I’ve seen, they’d try and make a change.”

County health officials, who are spearheading the effort as the most effective way of reducing underage smoking, argued that revenue from new tobacco retail licenses would enable the county to better crack down on businesses that sell to minors, and raising the cost per pack would create greater barriers for youth seeking to purchase tobacco products.

“There is concrete evidence proving that licenses reduce youth usage and access to tobacco products,” said Brian Vaughn, a county health policy director.

During a heated and, at times, emotional discussion on the matter, supervisors appeared split on both how to pay for, and when to implement new policies to reduce underage smoking. Supervisor David Rabbitt said the ordinance should be focused on educating young people about the dangers of smoking, and he would not vote in favor of the ordinance because it “creates an uneven playing field” where customers who don’t want to pay the $7 minimum price could simply shop at stores located in city limits.

“Let’s be honest... This ordinance goes way beyond youth,” Rabbitt said. “It’s really directed to all smokers everywhere.”

Supervisors Efren Carrillo and James Gore also voiced opposition to the new rules if other cities in Sonoma County do not adopt similar ordinances, while Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin pushed for an earlier timeline and a stricter ordinance.

“I had two parents die way too young of smoking-related illnesses,” Gorin said during a tearful testimony. “The county’s intent is to limit access among youth, but it is also my very real intent to try and make a difference in adult smoking as well. My family was destroyed, so I take this very personally.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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