Sonoma tightens rules on tobacco retailers

After months of discussion, Sonoma is clamping down on tobacco sellers in hopes of making it harder for kids to get their hands on cigarettes and other products.|

Sonoma is clamping down on tobacco retailers in hopes of making it harder for kids to get their hands on cigarettes and other products.

After months of discussion, council members Monday approved a measure that will not only prohibit new businesses from selling cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and other products, but also ban the sale of e-cigarettes, cheap cigars and most flavored tobacco in town.

It also will require that the 15 existing tobacco retailers obtain a license with the city for $246 a year. The money will be used to pay for a youth-decoy sting program, coordinated by sheriff’s deputies and Police Chief Bret Sackett.

Monday’s unanimous vote was a first reading of the new law. The measure must come back for a second vote, likely next month, before it can go into effect Sept. 1.

It appears unlikely council members will reverse their decision. They all strongly favored the ordinance, which some critics called unreasonable.

“I’m here in support of the people who live in our community. I have done my homework. I will be supporting this,” Councilwoman Laurie Gallian said before she and fellow council members voted for approval.

The council heard from about 20 people on the issue Monday. Several were tobacco and e-cigarette retailers and came from all over the county and Northern California. They argued it was unfair to bundle e-cigarettes with other tobacco products and restrict their sale in town.

However, council members said they wanted those devices off store shelves because of their growing popularity among children.

“I’ve seen the statistics grow within this community,” Gallian said, adding that younger children are getting their hands on such products.

“Adults can do what they want. The purpose of this is to make some of these products less attractive for kids,” Councilwoman Madolyn Agrimonti said.

The council started looking at a tobacco retailers license ordinance last year after the city received an “F” on an American Lung Association report card for its efforts to restrict second-hand smoke.

Pam Granger, senior advocacy manager for the American Lung Association in California, said Sonoma’s law will make it harder for children to get tobacco products.

“The consequences of not protecting kids from tobacco products are too great when 34,400 youth in California become smokers each year and more high schoolers are using electronic cigarettes than traditional cigarettes,” Granger said in an email.

Granger said smoking impacts all residents, who have to foot the bill to cover smoking-related medical costs.

She pointed to a recent study by UC San Francisco, which looked at 2009 data, the latest available, and found that smoking cost the state more than $18 billion, or $487 a resident, in health care expenses and lost of productivity from illness and premature death.

Granger, in a phone interview said, “Think of what else we could have been doing with that money?”

Retailers and those in the tobacco industry argued the city’s measure is unfair and punishes store owners who comply with federal and state regulations and don’t sell tobacco to minors.

J.P. Sethi, chairman of the Milpitas-based American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association, raised concerns in a letter to the city over some of the restrictions outlined in the ordinance. He took issue with the city requiring chewing tobacco to be sold in packs of five or more tins. He said it will drive up the cost for customers, many of whom prefer to buy a tin at a time for “freshness.”

Mike Scott, a field consultant for the 7-Eleven corporation, said that change will likely wipe out most of the chewing tobacco sales at the store in Sonoma.

“We’re probably going to lose about 90 percent (of sales),” he said. That means about $3,000 in monthly revenue for the store.

Although it will impact business, Scott said 7-Eleven supports the city’s decision and is working with county officials as the Board of Supervisors looks at a similar ordinance.

“While it may hurt, we also want to do what’s best in the community,” Scott said, adding that the corporation has been shifting its focus to other products such as hot sandwiches and fresh fruit as tobacco sales continue to drop nationwide.

The ordinance also prohibits the display of cigarette and tobacco-product advertisements and the sale of individual cigars under $5. Flavored pipe tobacco is allowed.

Greg Taylor said he was concerned about the impact the law will have on his store, Taylor and Norton Wine Merchants, which sells cigars for as low as $2.50. The lower-priced cigars are popular among senior residents, he said.

“They’re going to have to pay more money, which won’t make them happy,” Taylor said.

During the meeting, he said some of the rules in the ordinance were “arbitrary” and won’t reduce the number of young people smoking. “I don’t really see many kids smoking cigars,” he said.

However, Lori Bremner, a local resident and volunteer for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, praised the council’s decision.

“Our council cares about public health,” she said. “Our council cares about our kids.”

While some argued it is up to parents to prevent their children from smoking, Bremner said that’s not always the case.

Some kids still choose to smoke even with actively involved parents, said Bremner, who brought to the council meeting plastic bags filled with “e-juices” found in her friend’s 15-year-old daughter’s backpack. The flavors were named Unicorn Puke, Jolly Rancher; Teddy Bear and Pineapple Express.

“Those flavors and designs are not aimed at adults,” she said.

Bremner first approached Gallian several years ago about tightening the city’s smoking and tobacco regulations. Bremner said the licensing ordinance is the first piece of a bigger puzzle.

She’s hoping the city will ban smoking in public places and multi-unit housing complexes, which is expected to come before the council this summer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Lori Bremner is a member of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the organization.

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