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Tobacco industry could ask California voters to overturn ban on flavored tobacco sales

A smoker holds a pack of Menthol cigarettes.
Menthol cigarettes, pictured, will be banned for sale in California under a new law, but the tobacco industry gave notice it plans to seek a referendum to overturn the law.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

California voters could be asked to overturn a new law banning the sale of flavored tobacco after opponents notified the state Monday of plans to seek a referendum on the measure.

A notice was filed with the state by an attorney who has represented firms including R.J. Reynolds, which led the opposition campaign to Senate Bill 793. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill on Friday and it takes effect Jan. 1.

Attorney Aaron Agenbroad is one of a group of three people who submitted papers to the state attorney general’s office for preparation of a title and summary for a possible referendum petition. He did not respond to requests for comment on who is behind the referendum.

If opponents qualify the referendum by collecting the signatures of 623,212 registered voters, the tobacco ban would be placed on hold until voters are given a chance to weigh in, possibly in 2022.

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The referendum is being pursued by a new political group called the California Coalition for Fairness. A representative for the group did not respond to questions seeking the identity of its members.

“We agree that youth should never have access to any tobacco products, but this can be achieved without imposing a total prohibition on products that millions of adults choose to use,” the coalition said in a statement. “This law goes too far and is unfair, particularly since lawmakers have exempted hookah, expensive cigars and flavored pipe tobacco from the prohibition.”

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the author of the bill, denounced the plan to seek a referendum.

“California fought Big Tobacco and won,” Hill said. “This shameless industry is a sore loser and it is relentless. It wants to keep killing people with its candy-, fruit-, mint- and menthol-flavored poison. The adults who are hooked on nicotine aren’t enough for Big Tobacco; it wants our kids too.”

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The new law bans the retail sale of flavored tobacco products including menthol. Reynolds ran a television ad campaign against the legislation that drew criticism from Black community leaders for claiming the bill singled out people of color.

Hill introduced the legislation in response to a spike in teen use of electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco products.

Hill cited a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that 67% of high school students and 49% of middle school students who used tobacco products in the prior 30 days reported using a flavored tobacco product during that time.

Another proponent listed on the referendum filing, Jaime Rojas, was a spokesman for a tobacco industry campaign to overturn a ban on flavored tobacco in San Francisco. He also could not be reached for comment.

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The filing was not a surprise to Jim Knox, managing director of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Inc.

“The tobacco industry has always shown it will go to any length to deceive the public about its deadly product,” Knox said. “We are confident that if it gets on the ballot, that California voters will see through this despicable tobacco industry ploy to continue to lure kids into a lifetime of tobacco addiction.”


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