Loophole closed in ban of flavored, menthol tobacco products

The Oakland City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to ban the sale of flavored and menthol tobacco products at all tobacco stores and pharmacies.

The 8-0 vote closed the so-called “tobacco store” loophole in the city’s 2017 ordinance that banned the sale of flavored tobacco in Oakland. At that time, tobacco retailers requested and received an exemption to continue selling flavored tobacco at “adult-only” tobacco stores. “People have gone to great efforts to continue selling flavored and menthol tobacco,” Vice Mayor Larry Reid said. “I only wish they would put in equal effort to sell healthier products and join us to prevent a new generation of smokers.”

When the council passed the original ordinance, between two and five such stores existed, according to Reid. As of February, though, 56 adult-only tobacco stores were operating in Oakland, comprising roughly 15 percent of the city’s tobacco retailers. According to city officials, some of those adult-only stores were simply tobacco stores prior to the original flavored tobacco ban and added a sequestered adult-only area so after the ban they could continue displaying and selling flavored and menthol tobacco products.

The bulk of the adult-only stores are also located in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, according to city staff, making flavored tobacco more accessible to low-income residents and people of color. “In East Oakland and District 6, we do have significant health disparities,” said City Councilman Loren Taylor, whose district includes Millsmont, Eastmont and Maxwell Park.

“Those [health disparities] plague our black and brown communities and it is important that we look at ways at cutting those off early because we know prevention is much more affordable and creates greater life outcomes than dealing with problems after the fact.”

In addition to prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco, the council also voted to require on-site purchase of tobacco products and mandate a minimum package size and price for cigars, cigarillos and cigarettes, which city officials argue are easily affordable for low-income residents and other demographics that are vulnerable to disparate health issues. A 2018 survey conducted in Oakland by the Alameda County Public Health Department found that more than 99 percent of tobacco retailers sold cigarillos, including flavored ones, in packs of five or fewer for less than $2 after taxes.

“We know that menthol and flavored tobacco is a gateway to becoming addicted to regular cigarettes,” Reid said. “Four out of five youth smokers started with a flavored product.”

The amended ordinance is supported by many local community and public health organizations, including the East Oakland Youth Development Center, First 5 Alameda County, the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission and the Alameda County Public Health Department.

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