Flavored tobacco ban sweeps Marin towns

Morgan Salzer

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The banning of flavored tobacco products has been a hotly-debated topic across Marin County since the first propositions were made in 2018, according to the Marin Independent Journal, resulting in the prohibition of these products in most Marin County towns. Due to this, any flavorant besides the plain tobacco taste is now illegal to distribute or buy in participating cities, causing a general unrest for producers and consumers alike. San Anselmo, Mill Valley and San Rafael are the only three cities in the county where it is still legal to buy flavored tobacco.

San Anselmo Mayor Matt Brown was the only member of his council who voted against the ban; however, his dissent was enough to ensure the law did not pass due to the absence of two other council members during the vote.

“I am one of only two (that I’m aware of) elected officials in the county of Marin that are opposed to the ban against flavored tobacco, which is interesting,” Brown said. “I have a contrary view to the views of virtually 60 other elected officials in this community.”

Because of his unconventional stance on the topic, Brown often has to reiterate his viewpoint as to why he so vehemently argues against the bill.  

“I am not in favor of children accessing any of these substances, that is not what I am saying. I am saying that an adult at the age of 21 years old, in the privacy of their own home, can do what they want with nicotine, tobacco or cannabis,” Brown said.

Holding her vape device, a flavored tobacco user prepares to buy another cartridge.

Opposers of the ban argue that vape pens can be used as a transitional step to help addicted smokers quit, as propagated by numerous smoke shops and vape producers. But flavorants can often be a tempting drug for non-smokers, specifically teenagers, according to Jasmine Gerraty, project manager at the Smoke Free Marin Coalition.

“Statistically, three out of four young people who start to use tobacco products have started with a flavored product,” Gerraty said. “So by eliminating flavored tobacco, we will hopefully have a decrease in young people who begin to start smoking and in flavored tobacco [use].”

According to Gerraty, although Novato and Fairfax have implemented bans, the towns do allow for the sale of products containing menthol, the ingredient that accounts for a cooling, mint sensation. This means legal tobacco buyers may still have the opportunity to purchase some flavorants within the boundaries of their towns.

However, these sensations remain closer in flavor to the original cigarette taste rather than processed flavoring—something that not all users enjoy. Rebecca Williams, the retail buyer at VIP Vape Store located in San Rafael, shares similar sentiments.

“This ban impacts me personally because I, as an adult, appreciate not using a flavor that reminds me of cigarettes. I know a lot of our customers will be sad about the [ban] because they also feel like I do about not wanting to go back to a cigarette flavor. They don’t like the smell or taste of it anymore,” Williams said in an email interview.

Unlike other vape shops in Marin, VIP may still sell flavored tobacco products due to its location. After a four-hour San Rafael city council meeting on May 20, a three to two decision passed the proposed flavored tobacco ban, however it will not be enacted until Jan. 1, 2021, 18 months after the decision.

Speaking at the city council meeting, community members voice their opinions on both sides of the ban.

 

The council room was clearly divided, with ban supporters on one side and adversaries on the other. With many opposers clutching signs and sharing stories during the open forum, often about how vaping had acted as a refuge from using cigarettes and advocating for VIP, the impact of the shop on the community was exemplified.

“I think that people should know that we are not the ‘bad guys’ and we aren’t big tobacco,” Williams said. “Many local vape shops (like VIP) carry local products, have strict age verification and have morals. We don’t market to kids and we don’t advertise.”

Regardless of Williams or certain community member’s advocacy against the ban, the law has still been set in motion and change will have to occur. After the San Rafael vote, many began to accept this as a reality.

“The reasons that [supporters] wanted a ban really didn’t have much to do with [VIP], but we are ready to start shifting in the new direction of no flavors,” Williams said.

The future of flavored tobacco in Marin is not certain, but it can be ascertained that use is on a downward spiral. With the coming months most likely containing re-proposed bills and a change in the tobacco market, these bans are sure to leave a lasting effect.