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Council rebuffs e-puffs

A last-ditch effort by e-cigarette retailers to stamp out a new Sonoma tobacco ordinance went up in smoke Monday, as the City Council unanimously approved tighter restrictions on the sale of nicotine products.

While e-cig proponents spoke up at the May 18 council meeting calling the new law “arbitrary and capricious,” they unfortunately vaped their concerns too late. The ordinance passed 5 – 0.

As of Sept. 1, when enforcement of the ordinance begins, those wishing to sell tobacco products within the city limits will have to be one of the 15 existing tobacco retailers already doing business – because no new licenses will be issued, and tobacco-license transfers will only be allowed if an existing business changes hands and stays at the same location.

As the City this year has discussed the boundaries of a tobacco license program, council members have made it clear the primary goal of any such ordinance was to curb underage tobacco use. According to a city staff report, 5.6 million Americans currently under 18 “are projected to die prematurely from a smoking-related illness.”

In addition to licensing restrictions, tobacco shops will only be able to offer cigars in packs of five or more, and barred from selling single cigars priced under $5.

Enforcement of the ordinance will be established through an annual $246 licensing fee, which will go toward the cost of a youth-decoy sting operation to test compliance of each license holder at least once a year.

The City Council has reviewed multiple drafts of the ordinance since talks of a licensing program first wafted through City Hall in 2014 – but the May 18 meeting was the first time electronic-cigarette retailers made a unified stand opposing the ordinance, which also bans flavored nicotine products – the life and blood of the e-cig industry.

Tobacco retailer Joe Wad Homran, who describes his shop as “hidden behind Pearl’s Diner” on Fifth Street West, asked that the council “not rush” the ordinance and keep in mind that shopkeepers like him are “providing a service.”

“I just want to be part of the process,” said Wad Homran. “I have ideas as to how to make this a better ordinance.”

Stefan Didak, who said he was co-president of the Northern California chapter of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, wasn’t so ready to work with the council on the plan to ban flavored vapor products.

“Vapor products do not contain tobacco,” Didak said. “It would be like referring to a caffeinated soda as a coffee product.”

Didak asked if the council was really sending the message, “Please stop using flavored vapor products that are considered safer than deadly combustible tobacco – and go and buy some cigars instead.”

Ed Wolff came all the way from Mountain View for the meeting to represent on behalf of the fledgling Vaping Industry Alliance. He said the council is trying to regulate something it doesn’t understand.

“Has a doctor ever told you that a vapor product has harmed their patient?” Wolff asked the council. He also vowed to organize a “vaper boycott” of Sonoma Valley wines.

“Will it work? I don’t know,” said Wolff. “But I will try to make it happen if you pass this ordinance.”

While the long-term health effects of vaping are still unknown, most medical professionals agree e-cigarettes are in all probability far less damaging than tobacco products. However, the various sweetsy flavors of vaping products – from Gummi Bear to cotton candy – are roundly perceived as marketing nicotine to kids.

Not so, said the vaping proponents at the council meeting.

Jeff Hess, of NorCal Vape in Redding, argued that e-cigs are “geared toward adults to stop them from killing themselves (through tobacco products).”

“Do you like bubble gum... do you like Gummi Bears,” he asked the room full of mostly adults. “Of course you do!”

Lori Bremner, a local volunteer with the American Cancer Society, firmly disagreed – citing flavors such as “unicorn puke” in her comments.

“I can’t believe Unicorn Puke is aimed at adults,” Bremner said, holding up a container of the intriguingly named vaping liquid.

Added Bremner: “Unicorn Puke says it was (made in) Sonoma – I’m sure we’re all proud of that.”