S.F. Voters Stare Down Big Tobacco

The proposed “menthol ban” has drawn more campaign cash than anything else on the ballot.

For all of the gnashing of teeth over the millions of campaign dollars flying into the San Francisco mayoral race, those sums are nothing compared to how much money is being spent on the less-talked-about flavored-tobacco ban known as Proposition E.

The three major mayoral candidates and their Super PACs have all raised and spent more than a million bucks apiece in a fight for the top seat at City Hall. But tobacco firms and their big-money opponents have spent a gargantuan total of nearly $17 million to block one little local ballot measure here in the city and county of San Francisco.

The lion’s share of that money is the nearly $12 million pumped in by tobacco company R.J. Reynolds, whose Newport cigarettes have been the top-selling menthol cigarette in the United States for the last 15 years. This legislation would ban the sale of all menthol cigarettes, as well as flavored cigars and cigarillos like Swisher Sweets, flavored smokeless tobacco, and flavored e-liquids used in vape pens and cartridges.

They have an unexpected opponent. Despite being on the other side of the country, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has poured about $1.8 million of his own money into the Yes On E campaign. That’s in addition to the hundreds of thousands of additional dollars coming in from organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.

Both sides of Prop. E have carpetbombed mailboxes, TV, and the radio with ads that depict either adorable children begging us to save them from Big Tobacco, or vintage 1920s Prohibition footage mixed with dystopian prison-industrial complex imagery to underscore their argument that ”Bans Don’t Work.”

A few other cities in the U.S. have similar flavored-tobacco bans, but each has exemptions. For example, New York’s ban does not apply to menthols, and Oakland’s ban does not apply to specialty smoke shops whose products consist of 70 percent or more tobacco. None of these bans are as sweeping as the flavored-tobacco ban before San Francisco voters on June 5, which would prohibit sales of all flavored-tobacco products with no exceptions, including common menthol cigarettes.

As a reminder, this particular ban was already unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors last June, as written by District 10 Sup. Malia Cohen. But tobacco advocates managed to override the supervisors and get Prop. E on the ballot by collecting 20,000 signatures — and paying petition-gatherers a gaudy $5 per signature collected.

But not everyone in San Francisco supports it, supervisors’ vote aside.

“We would lose half our business,” says Aldalali Saleh Abdullah, manager of the Excelsior’s Super Smoke shop, as he gestures toward racks of both regular and menthol cigarettes. “We sell half and half. Almost 50 percent of our business [is flavored tobacco]. Every smoke shop is worried about it.”

Small businesses aside, many medical professionals in the Bay Area support the ban.

“The flavored tobacco bans are a very good idea,” Stanford Medical School Health Policy Associate Dr. Keith Humphreys tells SF Weekly. “The flavors appeal particularly to kids.”

He’s not wrong: A cursory look at your local smoke shop’s e-liquid vape counter will show you flavors that are reminiscent of popular children’s candies and breakfast cereals. It’s not a stretch to believe that vape cartridges with knockoff names like “Captain Crunch” and “Fruit Pebbles” might tempt a youngster to try vaping.

The odd one out is menthol, which doesn’t seem like a kid-friendly flavor. Why would the ubiquitously popular menthol cigarettes be included in the dragnet of this tobacco ban?

“Menthol makes it easier to inhale tobacco more deeply, making it more addictive and more carcinogenic,” Humphreys says. “So I would expect public-health benefits from banning menthol and other flavors.”

Nevertheless, Humphreys is quick to note that vaping and e-cigarette products are preferable to regular cigarettes. “I do think that e-cigarettes are less harmful than combusted cigarettes,” he says. “They’re not good for you, but they’re less harmful.”

But public-health experts are not unanimous in supporting the ban on flavored-tobacco products.

“Proposition E is wrong-headed. I think that a ban and prohibition of those products is not going to be successful,” UCSF School of Nursing Clinical Professor Kevin McGirr tells SF Weekly. “From many consumers’ perspectives, this is a much safer alternative.”

McGirr points out that many adult smokers do use flavored smokeless and vape products to successfully wean themselves from cigarette smoking.

“It’s like needle exchange,” he says. “By giving people clean needles, there’s always some risk that either they would not be effective, or the needles would get into the wrong hands. But the science ultimately bore out that this was a significant safety alternative for people who were IV drug users.”

Regardless of how the vote goes, the flavor ban might be particularly fruitless in a small town like San Francisco, where a quick trip to Daly City could easily produce a pack of menthols or a cartridge of candy-flavored nicotine.

“Given San Francisco, where the boundaries are more permeable, people will continue to use flavored products by just going across the border and purchasing them,” McGirr predicts. “The ban doesn’t prohibit people from using the product, it simply prohibits people from purchasing the products. I think those people will continue to go ahead and purchase them and acquire them however they can.”

But one of the bedrock arguments in favor of Prop. E is that tobacco companies have disproportionately marketed these flavored products to LGBTQ people and communities of color.

“Why do over 80 percent of Black smokers smoke mentholated tobacco products?” asks UCSF Associate Professor of Health Policy Dr. Valerie Yerger. “Since the Civil Rights Era, big tobacco companies have perniciously targeted the African-American community with mentholated tobacco products.”

McGirr sees bans as the wrong approach to undoing that damage.

“If they are in fact targeting people of color and poorer communities, the reality is that it is those communities that are still smoking at greater rates,” he says. “So what we need to do, from a public-health perspective, is to be targeting those communities with every possible intervention to help them move away from combustible tobacco use, including electronic devices.”

If passed, Prop. E would not ban all vape cartridges or e-cigarette sales. It would only ban any product that “has or produces a Characterizing Flavor.” But that does include most vape cartridges seen on San Francisco smoke-shop shelves, and many adults feel these flavored e-cigs help them kick the cigarette habit.

Research also indicates that vaping on flavored e-cigarettes is less harmful than traditional smoking, and helps users quit. In their report on the public health consequences of e-cigarettes, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that “while e-cigarettes might cause youth who use them to transition to use of combustible tobacco products, they might increase adult cessation of combustible tobacco cigarettes.”

In other words, the choice voters face may be between a product that might get more kids hooked, but paradoxically might help more adults quit. After a drawn-out fight between the Board of Supervisors and the boardroom of R.J. Reynolds, at least the decision will be made at the ballot box instead of in a smoke-filled room.

UPDATE: A previous version of this article stated that Michael Bloomberg has contributed $3.6 million to the Yes on E campaign. The correct number is $1.8 million, according to campaign spokesperson Gil Duran.

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