Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Thursday, March 31, 2022 @ 11:05 a.m.
Crescent City, Del Norte Electeds Tell Youth They're Proud, But Shoot Down Their Proposed Tobacco Retail License Targeting Flavored Vapes
A tobacco retail license that includes a ban on the flavored vapes Del Norte youth say get their peers addicted to e-cigarettes died Tuesday.
Crescent City Councilors and Del Norte County supervisors spent more than three hours debating whether such a license would be expensive to implement, if it would mean more fees and taxes on local businesses and whether or not restricting where vapes could be sold and who could sell them constituted government overreach.
At the end of the discussion, both sides couldn’t reach a consensus beyond asking staff to draft ordinances that would regulate and enforce existing federal and state law. But even that fell through when County Counsel Joel Campbell Blair told them that without a flavor ban and an ordinance regulating the density of tobacco retailers, a local law would be ineffective.
“It’s not going to give you this tool that we don’t have now that’s going to radically change things,” Campbell-Blair said. “People are buying it legally. It’s not a problem of selling it to minors, it’s a problem of the availability of flavors.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, who is seeking re-election, was absent.
It’s flavors such as bubblegum, strawberry kiwi and butterscotch that get teens hooked to vapes, members of Del Norte High School’s Standing Together Overcoming addiction with a Radical Movement coalition told elected officials Tuesday. Straight A students and gifted athletes vape to relieve stress, but they have a mutual hatred of cigarettes because they taste bad, they said.
Students with STORM joined forces with Amber Wier, program director for NorCal4Health to urge the Crescent City Council and Del Norte County Board of Supervisors to establish a tobacco retail license that targets flavored vapes. Wier initially brought the concept of a tobacco retail license to the City Council’s attention in April 2021.
At a subsequent presentation before the City Council in January, Wier presented the results of a California Healthy Kids Survey that showed vaping had increased among Del Norte County seventh-graders from 3 percent in 2015 to 11 percent in 2021. The survey also showed an increase in vaping in 11th graders, rising from 16 percent in 2015 to 22 percent in 2021.
The California Healthy Kids Survey also included statistics for “non traditional students” attending Castle Rock Charter School and Sunset High School, showing vaping had increased from 49 percent in 2015 to 58 percent in 2021.
On Tuesday, Campbell-Blair and City Attorney Martha Rice gave a brief history on tobacco legislation in the U.S. and California.
This includes State Senate Bill 793, approved in August 2020, that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco including vaping devices. According to Rice, a referendum asking voters to either veto or uphold SB 793 will go before California voters in November.
The referendum, spearheaded by the California Coalition for Fairness, says banning the sale of flavored tobacco would hurt local businesses and jobs, create an underground market and could lead to “increased youth access.”
The referendum campaign had received $21.16 million as of Dec. 31, 2021. Major donors include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which donated $10.33 million, and Phillip Morris USA, which donated $9.83 million, according to BallotPedia.
During Tuesday’s discussion, Crescent City Mayor Jason Greenough and Councilor Beau Smith asked if the city and county has the ability to enforce state and federal tobacco laws.
Rice said tobacco retailers could be assessed fines, be criminally prosecuted and reported to the Department of Tax and Fee Administration if they’re selling to someone under age 21, which is a criminal misdemeanor. But unless the state decides to revoke their license, that retailer can still sell tobacco, she said.
A tobacco retail license at the city or county level provides for local control as well as local enforcement, Rice said.
“By incorporating select state and federal laws into the ordinance, violations of any of the ordinance can be addressed locally through fines, suspension or revocation of the license, meaning the retailer could no longer sell tobacco within the jurisdiction of the enforcing agency,” she said. “Therefore, we wouldn’t have to wait for the feds or the state to come in and do a sting operation or monitoring. We can also incorporate local regulations that fit the community’s needs.”
According to Campbell-Blair, violating state law is considered a public nuisance and can be abated as a nuisance at the county level. This could include an administrative hearing and fines, he said, but no one is tasked with looking for those violations.
Currently, any accountability for tobacco retailers to follow state and federal law, including not selling to minors, which is a criminal misdemeanor, is up to the businesses themselves, Councilor Blake Inscore said. The city and county are dependent upon the state to come up with some kind of enforcement if they break those laws, he said.
Both Greenough and Smith brought up the issue of enforcing state and federal tobacco laws at the local level. Greenough, especially, called for a local policy to do a “certain amount” of enforcement activities, particularly decoy operations, to catch retailers who do sell to minors.
Crescent City Police Chief Richard Griffin asked Greenough what that enforcement would look like. Tobacco is low on the list of offenses his officers respond to, which, lately, has included fentanyl overdoses, he said.
“It would take three to four officers to do it safely for a decoy operation (and) you’re looking at a four hour operation,” Griffin told the Wild Rivers Outpost. “My issue is if the expectation is to do so many enforcements per quarter, that’s just an extra tax on law enforcement right now when we’re running thin on bodies for patrol.”
Griffin said his department is working with administrators at Del Norte High School and will purchase vape detectors to try to catch students vaping in the bathroom.
CCPD’s school resource officer, Daniel Sanders, said an administrator would likely be able to respond to the bathroom when those vape detectors are activated. But it wouldn’t solve the overall problem of teens getting their hands on e-cigarettes, he said.
“All we’re doing is putting patches on some symptoms,” Sanders said.
Smith and Greenough also continued to argue that a tobacco retail license banning flavored vapes constituted government over reach.
Though he applauded the teenagers for having the courage to approach their local government, Smith said while teens are going to “make dumb choices” he didn’t think a tobacco retail license would stop at banning flavored vapes.
“What I can do right here, right now is trust my daughter to make the right choice,” Smith said. “I’m responsible for my daughter. Your parents are responsible for you guys. Let me be responsible for my kid.”
Greenough said that while teens being addicted to vapes is a concern, he questioned if a local tobacco retail license is the most effective way to regulate that issue.
“Should it be regulated in the home or should it be regulated by you or I or should the state and federal government do this?” Greenough asked. “I believe in the home.”
David Gearhart, owner of High Tide Vapes, said no child should have a vape product. He pointed out that in addition to advertising in local businesses, vapes are often advertised on local Facebook pages.
Gearhart also said that he is subject to several state and federal laws, including a law that prohibits vape products from being available through the mail to a consumer. He said he has to provide his state licenses to the company he purchases his products from in order for it to be delivered to his business.
“We all understand that tobacco has never won on a ballot in the State of California,” Gearhart said. “But I will let you know that the State of California has passed a new law that put 12.5 percent on all vape products starting in July. When that happens and they start collecting that money, the government (won’t) get rid of it ‘cause they’re going to get money now.”
The law Gearhart referred to is State Senate Bill 395, which imposes a 12.5 percent sales tax on the price of e-cigarettes.
Gearhart said he doesn’t sell to kids. He said he’s also open to any discussion with any elected official on a potential local ordinance.
“I know every law related to vaping because I want to make sure that we are following every law,” he said. “So, I’m there for you guys.”
Of the elected officials on the dais, only Councilor Blake Inscore and District 2 Supervisor Valerie Starkey were supportive of a local tobacco retail license.
Starkey, who worked as a probation officer, said that while there are cases of government overreach, to protect the community’s youth, she feels it’s her responsibility to minimize teens’ access to harmful products like flavored tobacco and nicotine.
“We have to look at our community, that message our community wants to send is we value our youth, we protect our youth and we’re going to do everything we can from this position to keep the vapes and the flavored tobacco and nicotine away from our youth,” Starkey said. “Are they going to get it anyway? That’s a problem for another day. Does the school come up with more enforcement? That’s another problem for another day. What can we do as policymakers in this community to minimize it? That’s why I’m supporting the tobacco retail license.”
Inscore pointed out that there was push back against seatbelts and carseats when they were introduced, but those are standard and no one would question them now. Inscore said he took offense at the idea that he and his colleagues were considering a tobacco retail license to make people’s lives worse or to regulate everything.
“My goal is to try to represent this community as best I can and keep people safe as best I can,” he said. “This is a growing epidemic that is dramatically impacting young people at a higher rate than any other segment of our population. It is addicting them and it is destining them to a life addiction if something doesn’t change. That concerns me. If it didn’t concern me I shouldn’t be in public office.”