SAN FRANCISCO (BCN)— Selling flavored or menthol cigarettes would be banned in San Francisco under legislation proposed to the Board of Supervisors today.
Flanked by about 40 supporters waving signs with slogans like "Protect Our Youth," San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen announced the proposed ordinance on the steps of City Hall this morning.
"The tobacco industry targets young adults, African Americans and LGBTQ people, deceptively associating these products with fruit, mints and candy," said Cohen, who is lead author of the legislation.
"They taste good," said Cohen. "They mask the flavor of tobacco. They make it easier for people, people experimenting with tobacco to become lifelong users."
Cohen said tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., killing nearly half a million people each year.
Mayor Ed Lee, who spoke at the event, has endorsed the proposed ordinance.
Cohen said tobacco companies focus on young people as a marketing strategy "to protect their bottom line by constantly cultivating new users."
"We want our communities to be healthy," Lee said. "Tobacco companies are trying to get vulnerable communities hooked. I look forward with eager anticipation to signing this (ordinance)."
The ordinance would ban the sale of products including cigarettes, cigars and e-products that are advertised as having a "characterizing flavor." Examples include hazelnut cigars and peach cigarillos.
A similar ordinance will be introduced to the Oakland City Council in May by Annie Campbell Washington, Oakland's vice mayor.
"We took on Big Soda and won. Now we're taking on Big Tobacco," Campbell Washington said at the rally.
She was referring to the fact that San Francisco, Oakland and Albany voters passed measures taxing soda to reduce consumption in November.
"This has been a long time coming," said Dr. Valerie Yerger, an associate professor at University of California at San Francisco.
Yerger said more than 80 percent of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, and 45,000 African Americans die annually from tobacco-related diseases.
For Cohen, the proposed law hits close to home; her grandmother Kairy died of emphysema in 2007.
"One of her last parting words was... as she was dying in the hospital... was to remind me and my sisters that never to start smoking," Cohen said, her voice cracking. "So , needless to say this legislation is incredibly personal to me."
Cohen said research shows big tobacco advertises in neighborhoods with vulnerable populations.
"[Those in the LGBT community] experience high levels of stress related to discrimination related to homophobia. They smoke at rates two times that of straight populations."
A coalition of advocates including Breathe California and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council attended the rally, wearing black T-shirts with the classic red circle and slash over the word "flavor," with an image of a cigarette below.
Smoking flavored or menthol cigarettes wouldn't violate the ordinance, said Brittni Chicuata, a legislative aide to Cohen.
"It only bans their sale," she said.
There are 852 tobacco retailers in San Francisco, and 99.7 percent of all tobacco retailers sell menthol cigarettes, Chicuata said.
She said San Francisco's tobacco retailers have been cooperative in the past and she foresees no problems should the ordinance pass.
"The (city's) Department of Public Health has done a tremendous job cultivating relationships with retailers," Chicuata said.
The ban on flavored tobacco sales has six co-sponsors which is enough to pass the legislation. It would go into effect in January of 2018.