S.F. Supervisors Give E-Cigarette Ban Final Approval

Though the legislation is pending an FDA review of e-cigarettes, manufacturers like Juul aren't sitting idle.

The door to Discount Cigarettes Smoke Shop advertising the availability of Juul electronic cigarettes on Friday, April 26, 2019. (Photo by Ellie Doyen)

Supervisors gave a final, unanimous vote on Tuesday to ban the sale of e-cigarettes in San Francisco — the first major U.S. city to do so.

The ordinance, introduced by Supervisor Shamann Walton and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, prevents tobacco retailers from selling e-cigarettes until they receive approval from the U.S. Federal Drug and Administration. The Board of Supervisors also gave final approval to a ban on the sale, manufacture, and distribution of any tobacco products on city property.

“This temporary moratorium wouldn’t be necessary if the federal government had done its job,” Herrera said after the vote. “E-cigarettes are a product that, by law, are not allowed on the market without FDA review. For some reason, the FDA has so far refused to follow the law. If the federal government is not going to act, San Francisco will.”

Tobacco’s harmful health impacts are no secret at this point. But its use among teens has grown dramatically among the nation’s youth amid the popularity of e-cigarettes, from 3.6 million to 4.9 million between 2017 and 2018, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many tobacco products also contain nicotine, which is addictive and can harm developing brains. After FDA threatened to pull Juul products, the company shut down its Facebook and Instagram, required additional checks for minors online, and stop selling flavored products.

Much of the tension between Juul and government, however, has been with San Francisco. It’s headquartered on city-owned Pier 70, which was the target of the second ordinance, but bought a 29-story building downtown. Further, Juul said it would collect signatures for a November ballot measure to undo San Francisco’s tobacco bans. 

E-cigarette manufacturers like Juul aren’t the only ones protesting San Francisco’s crackdown. The city’s Small Business Commission said the ban would cost the city’s 738 licensed tobacco retailers about $70 million in sales, after losing $50 million in sales from last year’s flavored tobacco ban. The Arab-American Grocers Association said last week that it hoped the supervisors would establish a working group to address issues from tobacco sales, like the cigarette litter abatement fee and a license buy-back program.

“This decision by the Board of Supervisors puts politics before public health, and demonstrates to every resident in San Francisco their intent to legislate for optics over the mandate for responsible policymaking,” the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Board has shown no consideration for public sentiment, and absolutely no willingness to examine proven regulatory measures that would achieve the goals of youth prevention, while preserving reasonable access to legal products for adults.”

The coalition, funded by Juul, said on Tuesday that it would continue its mission to “prevent youth access and protect adult choice.” Instead, they recommend requiring retailers to obtain a permit from the city before selling the products, use ID scanning technology, limit bulk purchasing, and to have online retailers use a third party to verify the customer’s age. It promised it would take steps in the coming weeks to make this a reality.

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