Menthol Battle Heats Up

Big tobacco collected 33,941 signatures in opposition to the city's ban on flavored cigarettes.

A 1964 menthol cigarette ad, targeting African Americans. (Photo: Classic Film/Flickr)

When the Board of Supervisors voted last June to ban flavored cigarette sales within city limits, local health-care advocates and community leaders celebrated.

“Today, San Francisco sent a clear message that we need to do more to protect the health of our most vulnerable,” Supervisor Malia Cohen said at the time.The mayor formally signed off on the Board’s decision June 7, and the ban was expected to go into effect April 1, 2018.

But the city’s smokers — particularly the 35 percent who favor menthol cigarettes — are not happy with this turn of events. They have the financial backing of Big Tobacco, whose member corporations are scrambling to overturn the vote.

On Tuesday, the Board received a petition submitted in opposition of the ban, complete with 33,941 signatures — overkill, considering only 19,040 were required to qualify for the next election, which takes place June 5, 2018. This petition puts a hold on the supervisors’ ban until after a citywide vote takes place.

This means that we’d better prepare for a slew of anti-ban billboards and an explosion of mailers. As the city has seen in the past, large corporations have a fair amount of sway in local elections. Last November, voters supported a tax increase on sugary drinks, despite the more than $1 million that soda manufacturers spent on campaigns that stated small business owners would be hurt.

The flavored cigarette ban is gearing up to be just as costly, if not more so.

Already has launched the campaign “Let’s Be Real, San Francisco.” “Bans and prohibitions just don’t work … not in the 1920s, not during the failed War on Drugs, AND NOT TODAY!” it states. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the manufacturer of Newport menthol cigarettes, is bankrolling the campaign, and according to the Chronicle, the company spent $685,170 on the petition drive alone.

The City Controller’s Office of Economic Analysis estimated earlier this year that menthol cigarette sales account for more than $50 million in the city each year — a hard loss for big tobacco companies, and the small businesses who sell them.

But Cohen resists pressure to overturn the ban.

“I found it impossible to turn away from the ongoing public health threat posed by flavored tobacco after recognizing the precision with which RJ Reynolds and other companies target specific communities,” she says. “Action needed to be taken, and now we will defend it.”

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