Supreme Court avoids California tobacco law

Menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products at a store in San Francisco on May 17, 2018. Photo by Jeff Chiu, AP Photo

California is often at the cutting edge of public policy, so it isn’t all that rare that one of its laws ends up before the nation’s highest court. But that doesn’t always mean the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court is quick to throw out these laws. 

Monday, for instance, the court decided, without comment, not to hear a challenge from the tobacco industry to the state’s ban on flavored tobacco products. 

The case stems from a 2020 law that bans the sale of certain flavored tobacco products and menthol cigarettes. The law was intended to protect kids and teens, who are often the targets of flavored tobacco ads and sometimes start with flavored tobacco products before becoming smokers. 

But quickly after the law was passed, tobacco companies funded and qualified a referendum to overturn the law. The results did not go in their favor, however, as Californians easily passed Proposition 31 in November 2022 and upheld the ban. Within days, R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies filed a lawsuit and took it all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the power to regulate cigarette sales, not individual states.

One case the Supreme Court will consider though, concerns another pressing issue: housing. Today, the court is expected to hear oral arguments about the constitutionality of a “traffic impact mitigation fee” one resident, George Sheetz, had to pay to El Dorado County in order to build a single-family home on his property. The case has major implications for developers who argue that impact fees such as the $23,000 levied against Sheetz are one of the reasons why it’s difficult to construct affordable housing in the state

And a reminder of recent Supreme Court decisions impacting California:

  • Animal welfare: Last May, the high court sided with California voters and upheld Prop. 12, which was approved in 2018 to ban the sale of meat and egg products from farms that do not raise their livestock, including pigs, in spaces that give the animals enough room to stand and turn around.
  • Conversion therapy: The Supreme Court also turned down an opportunity in December to hear a case regarding a Washington state law that prohibits licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy. California is one of several states with similar bans, which some argue violates First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion.
  • Concealed carry: With California’s ban of concealed weapons in most public places still tangled up in the courts, it’s unclear how the state will comply with the June 2022 Supreme Court ruling on concealed carry. On Saturday, a panel of federal judges upheld a former injunction, preventing the ban from taking effect. Gov. Gavin Newsom decried the decision, saying it “puts the lives of Californians on the line.

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