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L.A. moves to ban selling flavored tobacco, but exempts some hookah sales

Flavored vaping products containing nicotine
Flavored vaping products containing nicotine in a Los Angeles store in 2019.
(Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)

Tobacco products that come in sweet, fruity and minty flavors could soon be banned from store shelves in Los Angeles, under a proposal backed Wednesday by the City Council.

Council members voted to ask city attorneys to start drafting the ban on selling flavored tobacco products, which has been sought by a coalition of youth and public health advocates. Backers of the ban argue that such products — including liquid pods for electronic cigarettes, menthols and flavored cigars — have been a gateway to hooking teens on nicotine.

“Kids don’t smoke regular tobacco because it’s gross, and the tobacco companies know this. You know this,” said Virginia Escamilla, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Flavored products are “Big Tobacco’s sad, sad ploy to addict a whole new generation to this drug.”

Much of the debate at City Hall centered around whether to carve out any exemptions to the proposed ban. Council members opted to exempt some sales of hookah tobacco, but decided against an exemption for menthol cigarettes.

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Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who has championed the proposed ban on flavored tobacco, launched the discussion Wednesday at City Hall by recounting that several of his family members had died of related illnesses after years of smoking, including one of his sisters who had started smoking cigarettes at age 12.

“If cigarette smoking continues at the current rate among our youth in this country, 5.6 million of today’s Americans younger than 18 will die early, just like my sister, from a smoking related illness,” O’Farrell said.

Because most young tobacco users started with flavored products, O’Farrell said, “selling tobacco under the guise of candy — bubble gum, fruit, you name it, they have it — is incredibly dangerous and something we need to act on.”

Ahead of the Wednesday vote, hookah sellers had pleaded for an exemption for “flavored shisha tobacco products” that mirrors the language of a state law, arguing that hookah is a valued tradition for Arabs, Armenians and other communities that should be protected.

L.A. could soon ban businesses from selling many tobacco products with sweet or fruity flavors, in a bid to stop teens from getting hooked on nicotine.

Others contended that menthol cigarettes should be exempt from the ban, saying that it was unfair to single out a product used disproportionately by Black smokers. On Tuesday morning, both groups marched outside City Hall.

Public health advocates countered that the best way to protect teens from nicotine addiction was an across-the-board ban on flavored tobacco, arguing that all sorts of such products pose a risk of appealing to teens. For instance, one study found that hookah had been the starting point for roughly a quarter of college students who had ever used nicotine products.

Menthol cigarettes, in turn, have been targeted by community activists who argue that there is nothing discriminatory about eliminating a product that has led to the suffering and death of Black people.

After a lengthy discussion Wednesday, council members opted to create an exemption for existing, legally operated smokers’ lounges, allowing them to sell hookah tobacco for consumption either on site or off. Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez argued that a retail component was needed for hookah businesses.

“We’re talking about those small mom-and-pop minority businesses,” Rodriguez said. “We need to make sure there are no unintended consequences with our policies that would prohibit their success.”

The exemption was approved narrowly on an 8-to-6 vote, with council members O’Farrell, Mike Bonin, Paul Krekorian, Nury Martinez, Nithya Raman and Mark Ridley-Thomas opposing the decision.

That carveout does not go as far as members of the National Hookah Community Assn. had advocated, but is broader than what was previously backed by a council committee. Krekorian, during the debate, said he was bothered by arguments that had been made about the cultural significance of hookah for some immigrant communities.

“Armenian culture is defined by its music and its art and its literature and its faith. ... It’s not defined by hookah,” said the councilman, who is of Armenian descent.

“In my view, the way that you protect Armenian culture ... is by not allowing Armenian young people to die prematurely from smoking-related death,” he said.

The proposed menthol cigarette ban highlights longtime racial inequities of one of the most stigmatizing public health issues in American society.

The council unanimously decided not to carve out an exemption for menthol cigarettes, reversing the recommendation made by a council committee more than a year ago.

“History has shown us clearly what harmful effects menthol cigarettes have had, particularly on the African American community,” Ridley-Thomas said. “It is up to us to prevent the repetition of such racial injustices and health inequities.”

Scores of other California cities and counties have already passed similar bans on flavored tobacco products, including West Hollywood and Long Beach. Los Angeles is drafting its ban while the state law prohibiting the sale of many such products is on hold, with a referendum backed by the tobacco industry headed for the November 2022 ballot.


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