The California Assembly on Monday approved a ban on the retail sale of flavored tobacco products in the state, with supporters saying it is needed to reduce smoking and vaping by minors and others attracted by flavors that include fruit and menthol.
Supporters of the legislation blasted a new advertising campaign from tobacco companies that claims the bill discriminates against Black and Latino smokers, saying that the ads disingenuously portray the industry as an ally of communities of color.
The tobacco industry ad, which calls the bill “politics at its worst,” alleges that the measure would criminalize menthol cigarettes, “giving special treatment to the rich, and singling out communities of color.”
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the chairwoman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said it is racist for the tobacco industry to claim the bill discriminates against Black people by prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes in the state.
“I am insulted that the tobacco industry would make an effort to make us believe that mentholated cigarettes are part of African American culture, and that this is a discriminatory piece of legislation against Black people,” Weber said during the floor debate.
The Senate had previously approved the measure, but it must go back to that house for expected approval of amendments that exempt hookah products, premium cigars and some pipe tobacco.
“It’s the most deadly consumer product ever created,” Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) said during Monday’s short floor debate. “In a perfect world, there would be no exemptions to this bill, but we all know we don’t live in a perfect world.”
The Assembly vote was 50-0, with Republican lawmakers withholding their votes and citing concerns that it would take away desperately needed tax revenue as tobacco sales decline and that several exemptions were approved to win a majority vote.
Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon) said the bill will be ineffective if it does not cover hookah products, cigars and cannabis.
“If we actually cared about the kids, we would deal with some of the other industries as well,” Flora said.
The bill's author, state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), said he reluctantly accepted amendments to legislation that had never gone beyond the committee level in the Assembly in previous years. He said his measure seeks to address an increase in tobacco use by young people by outlawing store sales of flavored products including cigarettes, many cigars and chewing tobacco, as well as electronic cigarettes and flavored vaping products.
Hill argued that banning flavored tobacco — including candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigarette products — is essential to address an upsurge in vaping and other tobacco use by minors.
A 2018 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 67% of high-school students and 49% of middle-school students who used tobacco products in the prior 30 days reported using a flavored tobacco product during that time, Hill noted.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) said there is a reason tobacco products are sold with flavors including menthol, cotton candy and gummy bears.
“These flavors are marketed to kids and people of color to ensure tobacco companies have a clientele on the hook for life,” Rendon said.
If the measure is signed by the governor, California would become the second state to ban the sale of flavored tobacco.
In the days leading up to the vote, the tobacco industry had run television ads saying SB 793 singled out communities of color because it bans menthol.
Advocates for the bill have blasted those claims as inaccurate, responding with another ad that argues flavored tobacco products have been heavily marketed to communities of color and pose disproportionate health risks to Black residents.
On Monday, a group of Black leaders, including academics and youth activists, held a news conference on Zoom to denounce the opposition ad campaign as an attempt by the tobacco industry to deceive lawmakers and the public.
“It’s critical that the Black community and particularly the Black faith community stand up to the lies, misinformation and the fake news that is being promulgated by big tobacco,” said the Rev. John E. Cager III, pastor of the Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church Los Angeles.
In a recent committee hearing, the bill was opposed by the Rev. K.W. Tulloss, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Southern California.
He said he does not want kids to smoke, but said he opposes the bill because of its ban on menthol products, which he said are popular with Black smokers, while exempting other flavored tobacco including hookah and premium cigars.
“What we see here is this bill disrespects our community of color and their preference, while it exempts hookah products on behalf of the Middle Eastern cultures,” Tulloss said. “If you put a ban on menthol, it will criminalize this product.”
In arguing against the bill, Tulloss cited the case of Eric Garner, a Black man who died in police custody in New York in 2014 after he was stopped for allegedly selling single cigarettes on the street.
On Monday, Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) disputed the claim of some opponents that banning flavored tobacco sales would create more confrontations between the police and Black and Latino residents. Bonta noted the bill bans retail stores from selling the products, not possession or use of flavored tobacco.
Supporters of the bill recently began airing their own television ad, in which spoken word artist SixFootah the Poet says that “menthol cigarettes put my mother in the ground,” challenging lawmakers to provide Black children “the same protection as the kids in the suburbs do.”
“So you want to ban all flavors except for the ones that take Black lives away?" she asks in the ad.
The legislation is supported by the American Lung Assn. in California, American Heart Assn. and American Cancer Society.
The bill was opposed by business groups including the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Retailers Assn. and the California Fuels and Convenience Alliance, which represents some 12,000 convenience stores.
A representative of the alliance testified in a recent committee hearing on the measure that it would hurt small businesses that are struggling to recover during the COVID-19 pandemic and deprive the state of needed tax revenue.
Such firms “will face significant economic hardship if you move forward with this proposal,” said Jacque Ayers, a manager at Winchester Fuels, a market and gas station in Temecula.