SAN FRANCISCO — Several California cities are swiftly moving beyond flavored vape bans to outlaw e-cigarette sales entirely, following in the footsteps of Juul’s hometown of San Francisco.
It’s a sign that the Trump administration’s crackdown on the fast-growing vaping industry could be just the start of its problems.
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San Francisco was the first of three California cities to ban e-cigarettes altogether. About two dozen other California cities have banned flavored vapes, and states and communities across the country are following suit as the Trump administration moves to take the products off the market.
Juul already has spent more than $4.5 million trying to convince voters to overturn San Francisco’s first-in-the-nation e-cigarette ban with a November ballot initiative. It’s working on a repeal effort of a similar measure in a smaller nearby city.
If San Francisco’s broad ban prevails at the ballot box, it will likely encourage more cities and states to take bold measures. Just last week, a third California city voted to end all e-cigarette sales.
“This is not just crazy San Francisco saying that e-cigarettes are bad for folks, particularly bad for our young people,” said city Supervisor Shamann Walton, who wrote the city ordinance that banned e-cigarettes. “We need to do everything that we can to keep them out of the hands of our youth here in San Francisco and continue work to make sure that happens across the state and across the country.”
The e-cigarette company is countering with a message about adult choice, particularly for smokers looking for something that is less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
“Prohibition does not work, and this ban for all adults will help fuel a dangerous black market for vapor products and drive adult smokers back to cigarettes, which kill 40,000 Californians every single year and are the leading cause of preventable death in the world,” Juul spokesperson Ted Kwong said in a statement to POLITICO.
The recent publicity about youth vaping, combined with the outbreak of a mystery vaping-related disease that’s killed at least six and sickened nearly 400 people, has taken its toll on public opinion. Morning Consult reported Monday that the share of Americans who view Juul unfavorably is more than five times higher than it was in July 2018. Of the 1,900 brands tracked, Juul is now second to last in popularity. Only Marlboro is worse.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he sees flavor bans, rather than all-out prohibitions, as the primary way state and local governments will push the federal government for decisive action. But if that doesn’t happen, all bets may be off, particularly given public concern over the recent vaping-related illness.
“There has been growing moment for the need for strong government action, both to curtail the explosion in youth use and to get to bottom of the recent serious illnesses,” Myers said. “Unless cities and states see a real change, then they’re going to continue to look for solutions that protect their citizens.”
After President Donald Trump’s announcement at the White House last week, FDA officials told lawmakers that the agency will issue rules within weeks, giving e-cigarette makers 30 days to pull flavored products off the market or face fines. Only products that receive FDA approval would be allowed back on the market after agency review.
The CDC on Monday activated its emergency operations center to bolster the interagency response to the mysterious lung illness linked to vaping.
Much of the anti-vaping action has been driven by local governments with some 30 cities nationwide — including 22 in California — already enacting comprehensive flavor restrictions, including products that contain menthol. More than 200 jurisdictions around the country now enforce some form of restrictions around e-cigarettes to address youth vaping.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday announced an executive order that calls for steps to reduce youth access to vaping products and a $20 million public health education campaign about tobacco and cannabis. But he stopped short of calling for a ban on flavored tobacco products.
San Francisco was the first major city to adopt a comprehensive flavor ban in 2017, and city voters last year overwhelmingly rejected a nearly $12 million tobacco industry-funded ballot measure seeking its repeal.
Then the city supervisors went beyond the flavored ban, making history in June by passing the most restrictive e-cigarette measure in the country. It would suspend sales of all vaping products until they undergo review by the FDA, a process that could take years.
Juul quickly funded a successful drive to put an initiative, Proposition C, on the city’s November ballot that seeks to overturn the ban and replace it with a set of sales restrictions the company supports.
For Juul, flavor restrictions may be tough enough — the company said it already shifted the sales of its “non-traditional” flavors out of retail locations — but full sales prohibitions take it to another level.
Kwong, the Juul spokesperson, said the company was “disappointed” the two other Bay Area cities — Livermore and Richmond — “took the same path” as San Francisco, instead of focusing on “the opportunity to enact tough and effective regulation that will prevent youth access.”
Juul’s strategy is to work with municipalities to avoid banning any products, preferring to push for stricter point-of-sales regulations. The company points to new electronic systems that make it harder for e-cigarettes to be sold illegally to minors and limit the amount people can purchase. Company officials said they’ve already installed 50 at outlets in San Francisco and about five in Livermore, in addition to updating thousands of systems around the country.
The company is also emphasizing the products as a way to help adult smokers transition from traditional cigarettes, an approach that some public health experts support but remains controversial. Two days before Trump’s flavor ban was announced, the FDA warned Juul against marketing its vapes as much safer than tobacco products without agency approval to do so.
If all else fails, Juul will likely consider legal action against the cities that ban their products, according to a source close to the company.
While the sales prohibitions remain limited to the Bay Area, Trump’s move and the spurt of action by other communities is creating a far more difficult environment for the vaping industry. That makes the outcome of San Francisco’s ballot measure even more critical.
“This movement is real from a grassroots perspective because parents are feeling it in every community,” said Larry Tramutola, a political strategist running a campaign against Juul’s ballot measure. “Local jurisdictions are trying to find solutions to these problems, and I think Juul has been a little caught off guard.”
Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, whose city approved a comprehensive ban on e-cigarette sales, said the fate of the San Francisco ballot measure may determine whether more cities follow this path. And he said he’s not surprised that the movement against all e-cigarette sales has started in the region.
“California is generally in the front of the rest of country, and the Bay Area is out in front of California,” he said.