San Rafael latest Bay Area city to ban the sale of flavored tobacco

San Rafael will become the latest Bay Area city to ban the sale of flavored tobacco, but not until 2021 at the earliest. 

Monday night, the City Council was presented with two choices: an outright ban on e-cig retailers or a ban that spares stores that are for adults only. 

Instead, in a surprise twist, they went in a third direction: preserving the status quo until January 2021, when all sales will cease, assuming nationwide reforms have not taken place by then.  

"We all want to protect the kids, we want what's best for the youth," said Ted Turina, owner of VIP Vape, an erotic boutique and smoke shop on 2nd Street downtown. 

Eighteen is the minimum age to enter Turina's store; 21 to buy tobacco products. 

Turina believes the age requirement is sufficient to safeguard young people from flavored tobacco, with its array of fruity flavors. 

"You have to be an adult just to get in here," Turina told KTVU, " as opposed to a gas station or a 7-11 or a Safeway, where kids can get in and be exposed to it."

Turina rallied his customers to attend Monday's council meeting, and they lined the city hall steps, holding signs comparing e-cig crackdowns to prohibition. 

"I don't smoke as much, I don't stink, and I don't cause offense to my family," said Jennifer Parker, describing to council members how vaping helped her stop smoking after twenty years.

"I'm not craving a cigarette every five minutes like before and I particular like the blackberry salt flavor," said Parker. 

But health advocates say there is no medical evidence that vaping leads to smoking cessation, and that it may be as harmful to health as traditional tobacco.

"We're trying to find local solutions partly because of a failure of federal and state action," said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County Health Officer, arguing for an immediate and complete ban. 

Willis noted, a federal judge has found the U.S. Food and Drug Administration negligent in allowing vape products on the market with so little study and oversight.  

"This has moved into our communities so quickly, we haven't had a chance on the science side and the regulatory side, to catch up." 

Legislation is pending at both the state and federal levels, to severely restrict sales, especially as vape use explodes among minors. 

"Students report that parents and older siblings are purchasing vaping devices for them, make no mistake about it," said middle school teacher Sean Smith.

"And when students give up their vaping supplies to the school administration, they have a new vaping device the next day." 

In Marin County, the use of e-cigarettes has more than doubled in recent years, to an estimated one in three teens. 

Critics say big tobacco is bankrolling the e-cig companies, and offering candy-like flavors to lure young people into nicotine addiction.

"They don't want to hook you when you're 50, they want to hook you when you're thirteen,"  said speaker Cameron Price, "because when you're thirteen, you're more susceptible to making a decision in the moment and not think about long-term effects." 

The county of Marin and five of its cities have already enacted bans, but most of those cities didn't have smoke shops anyway. 

San Rafael is the biggest city in the county, and home to three tobacco retailers, potentially hurt by a ban. 

"By us putting in a ban, it might make people feel good, but it's not going to make a change," argued councilman John Gamblin, noting that almost 9 in 10 teenagers who attempt to buy vaping products online succeed. 

Gamblin argued that it was unfair to penalize reputable local businesses selling a legal product, while state and federal lawmakers do little to curb sales to young people. 

For that reason, the council arrived at a compromise: allow 18 months for new overriding legislation to clear the air on vaping, but if it is not forthcoming, enact a complete ban, with no exemptions.  

Turina, whose store opened 16 years ago, expressed dismay at that prospect.

"It will hurt us but also constituents, Turina told KTVU, "and would be a real shame to the thousands of adults who want a healthier alternative, not to mention it's legal for them."