Tobacco ordinance fuels burning questions

Council sends proposed licensing program back to the drawing board|

Do kids still seek out chewing tobacco? What’s the price of a cheap cigar? Are traditional tobacco flavors a lure for Valley youth?

Details over a proposed tobacco-licensing program were still cloudy this week, so the Sonoma City Council took a deep breath and sent the draft ordinance back to city staff for further revisions.

But opinions over the fine points in the law were as varied as the e-cig flavors on the market.

The first reading on March 16 of the proposed ordinance to establish a city tobacco-licensing program was lit with as many questions as answers – including what limits would be placed on cigar purchases, and to what extent would a ban on flavored nicotine products affect the availability of chewing tobacco.

The ordinance has been in the fine-tuning stages since Feb. 2, when the council agreed to move forward on a licensing program with an expressed goal of keeping tobacco-related products out of the hands and mouths of Valley youth.

The latest incarnation of the ordinance would limit the number of licensees to 15, grandfathering the 15 currently established tobacco retailers into the program, and prohibit any new tobacco sellers within the city limits.

The ordinance would also limit the available licenses to those existing 15 sites, only allowing a transfer of the license if the business changes hands and stays at the same location.

Aside from firming up the number of licenses, however, city officials struggled to find a consensus on how to balance the program’s youth-tobacco prevention goals without infringing upon the rights of adults to enjoy the tobacco products of their choice.

Council members were generally firm in their desire to ban flavored tobacco products – tasty choices such as peanut butter, marshmallow, popcorn and cotton candy, critics say, are thinly-veiled attempts by the tobacco industry to lure a new generation of nicotine addicts.

But Sonoma Mayor David Cook was particularly concerned over whether chewing tobacco, which is often flavored, is what the kids are into these days – and questioned whether the ordinance should make an exemption for dip.

“I am concerned with wintergreen,” said Cook. “Those (traditional flavors) are geared toward adults.”

Councilmember Laurie Gallian, however, didn’t see a difference between chew and other forms of flavored tobacco.

“It’s a major attraction for kids,” said Gallian.

Councilmembers also raised the issue of distinguishing fruity flavors from traditional flavors in the ordinance - but City Attorney Jeffrey Walter advised an “all or nothing” policy for flavors, as the concept of “traditional” is somewhat subjective.

“Is there a website that lists the traditional flavors?” Walter asked, half jokingly.

As in previous council meetings with tobacco licensing on the agenda, several public commenters spoke in support of the proposed ordinance.

Sonoma resident Laurie Bremner described herself as a leukemia survivor and blamed secondhand smoke from her late father’s tobacco addiction for her health problems as a youth.

“Tobacco is the only product that, if used as directed, will kill you,” said Bremner.

Cathy Claeys, of Sonoma, urged the council to support a stiff ban on any and all tobacco products.

“We have to do whatever we can do to get any type of tobacco products out of the hands of kids,” said Claeys. “Let’s not let these things go crazy, as they’re going.”

Unlike the Feb. 2 meeting, however, Monday’s public commenters included representatives from tobacco retailers.

Mike Scott, who said he was from the corporate 7-11 offices, questioned the necessity of the ordinance when “the system they’ve set in place to keep from selling to minors” has resulted in “zero” violations last year for underage tobacco sales.

Brent Louder, spokesman for retailer advocacy group RESOURCE, echoed the sentiment that “City of Sonoma (tobacco) retailers had a perfect compliance record” and that such an ordinance “will not achieve the desired results.”

“Tobacco will still be illegal to minors,” he said, “and adults will go outside the city” to buy tobacco.

Addressing the issue of retailer compliance, Mayor Cook responded later in the meeting that the lack of violations is largely because “enforcement is not happening.”

Erich Beal, of Digital Ciggz, which has two “vape shops” in Santa Rosa, told the council he came before them “in support of vapor products,” which were developed, he said, to help tobacco smokers “stop being tobacco smokers.” He urged the council to amend the ordinance to allow the sale of flavored vapor products.

“Why have you launched this blitzkrieg against us?” Beal asked. “This council and big tobacco have the same agenda.”

Mayor Cook, however, was not impressed.

“I don’t like vapors, they’re geared toward children,” Cook said later. “Vapor, selling vapors - it’s a kid thing.”

Meanwhile, Arnold Drive resident Ed Kenney had a more philosophical take on the whole tobacco issue.

“I been married for 60 years,” said Kenney, adding that he’d chewed tobacco for most of that time. “Then my wife died of Alzheimer’s.”

Concluded Kenney: “You can kick the bucket from anything.”

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