When consumers walk into many convenience stores, they find walls of products to choose from.
When consumers walk into many convenience stores, they find walls of products to choose from, which includes many flavored tobaccos. Image courtesy: CounterTobacco.org

By Paul Feldman

Fair Warning

In a closely watched election contest, San Francisco voters have upheld a first-in-the-nation ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products, overwhelmingly rejecting an $11.6 million campaign by R.J. Reynolds to scuttle the law.

San Francisco officials last June approved the ban but a petition drive funded by Reynolds, the maker of the top-selling menthol brand, Newport, forced the issue onto yesterday’s ballot.

With all precincts counted, the ban — known as Proposition E – won by a whopping 68 percent-to-32 percent margin.

“San Francisco voters just sent a clear and resounding message: No amount of deceptive advertising will distract from the fact that candy flavors target kids,” said Dr. Melissa Welch, an official with the American Heart Association. “We believe the success of Proposition E will encourage other cities to follow suit.”

In recent years, more than a dozen cities and counties across the nation have approved restrictions on menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products. Typically, they have limited sales to adult-only tobacco shops or barred sales within several hundred feet of schools. But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last year went the furthest — approving a complete citywide sales ban that had been due to take effect in April, until being delayed by the petition drive.

In recent weeks, a blitz of broadcast and print ads by a Reynolds-funded committee urged a ‘no’ vote on Proposition E. The ads asserted that bans don’t work and that “San Francisco is the one place in the country that has never been about telling adults what they can and cannot do.” Reynolds spent its $11.6 million on the petition drive and the unsuccessful campaign against the ban, which is due to take effect 10 days after the election results are certified.

“This vote is a setback for tobacco harm reduction efforts because it removes from the market many potentially reduced-risk alternatives to cigarettes,” Reynolds spokesperson Jacob McConnico said in a written statement. “History has shown regulations that go to extremes to limit consumer choice result in unintended consequences, including criminal activity.”

He added that Reynolds will encourage the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set “effective regulations aimed at preventing youth access to tobacco products but preserving choice for adult smokers.”

Carlos Solorzano, CEO of the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce of San Francisco and member of the anti-ban coalition, said: “It’s disappointing that a majority of voters in San Francisco came to the conclusion that the best way to address an issue of concern, such as underage tobacco use, is a return to the policy of prohibition.”

Proponents of the ban raised more than $4 million, much of it from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund and the American Heart Association.

The pro-ban forces, known as “San Francisco Kids vs. Big Tobacco,” told voters that flavored tobacco products cause more youngsters to take up smoking. Research cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than half of smokers under 18 choose menthol cigarettes and that nearly nine of 10 African-American smokers prefer menthol.


The approval of the bank means Reynolds and other businesses “will find it harder to addict, sicken, and kill people of color in San Francisco,” said Philllip S. Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “The ban on menthol cigarettes is a monumental step forward for health equity and social justice for communities of color, which Big Tobacco has long viewed as easy prey for its menthol and candy-flavored products.”

Health authorities call smoking the leading cause of preventable disease in the U.S., taking more than 480,000 lives per year.

If other communities follow San Francisco’s lead, hundreds of millions of dollars of tobacco sales could be at stake. Menthols make up about 30 percent of U.S. cigarette sales.

In the past year, cities including Oakland and Los Gatos, California, and Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota, have passed laws limiting the availability of menthol cigarettes. In Duluth, the City Council voted in February to allow menthol sales only at several adult tobacco shops and in Oakland, a similar restriction is due to take effect in July.

The restrictions are an outgrowth of a landmark 2009 federal law that authorized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products. Included was a ban on fruit, candy and spice flavors in cigarettes because of their appeal to teens.

Congress, however, exempted menthol, telling the FDA to determine if the flavor should also be restricted or banned. And the law did not limit flavorings of any kind in e-cigarettes, which were a minor factor at the time.

A 2013 FDA staff report found it is “likely that menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with nonmenthol cigarettes.” But the agency has not taken action.

Menthol cigarettes have not been shown to be more toxic than other cigarettes. But they are viewed by health authorities as a gateway product that anesthetizes the throat so beginners can tolerate the harshness of tobacco smoke.

The heavy campaign spending in San Francisco reflects tobacco interests’ concern about future revenues, said Stanton A. Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

“The best measure of the effectiveness of a tobacco control policy is how hard the tobacco companies fight it,” Glantz wrote in a blog post last week.

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Fair Warning

This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, Calif., that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.