By Laura Klivans, KQED
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is slated to vote Tuesday to ban the sale and distribution of e-cigarettes in the city. The city is the corporate home of Juul Labs, the biggest producer of e-cigarettes in the country.
The ordinances would make the sale of e-cigarettes illegal in brick-and-mortar stores and online when shipping to San Francisco addresses.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed has 10 days to sign the legislation, which she has said she will do. The law will be enforced seven months from that date, in early 2020.
San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton, who co-authored the legislation, sees it as part of a long-term battle against the effects of smoking.
“We spent a few decades fighting big tobacco in the form of cigarettes,” Walton said. “Now we have to do it again in the form of e-cigarettes.”
Under federal law, the minimum age to buy tobacco products is 18. California and 15 other states, however, have raised that age to 21 or passed measures that will set it to 21 by 2021. Despite this, use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, has skyrocketed among teenagers nationally.
Last year, 1 in 5 high school seniors reported vaping in the past month. That’s almost double the number from the year before. Even eighth graders are vaping in record numbers.
These increases come after years of declines in teenagers smoking traditional cigarettes.
Public health officials are concerned about the rising number of teenagers using e-cigarettes, as nicotine can harm a young person’s developing brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that young people who vape may be more likely to start smoking traditional cigarettes.
Walton said he’s disgusted with the actions of Juul and similar companies, who he said are “putting profits before the health of young people, and people in general.”
Despite the tobacco age limit, Walton noted that vaping devices are commonly confiscated from students in the city’s middle and high schools.
The ordinance is accompanied by another that prevents the manufacture, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes on San Francisco property. The ordinance takes direct aim at Juul Labs, which leases space from the city on San Francisco’s Pier 70. The ordinance is not retroactive, so it would not remove Juul from the company’s current space, but it would prevent other e-cigarette makers from renting city property in the future. In a statement, Juul spokesman Ted Kwong wrote that, regardless, the company does not “manufacture, distribute or sell our product from this space.”
Juul’s vaping device was introduced in 2015. It’s small, sleek and discreet, looking similar to a flash drive. The company now controls 70% of the vaping market.
In a statement, Juul Labs said it shares the city’s goal of keeping e-cigarettes away from young people. The company said it has made it harder for underage buyers to purchase Juul off its website and has shut down Juul accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
But, the company argues that “the prohibition of vapor products for all adults in San Francisco will not effectively address underage use and will leave cigarettes on shelves as the only choice for adult smokers, even though they kill 40,000 Californians every year.”
Walton doesn’t buy that argument, however. He said that’s simply “trading one nicotine addiction for another.” What’s more, he’s concerned that for every adult that might benefit, dozens of young people could become addicted.
San Francisco resident Jay Friedman said the complete e-cigarette ban goes too far. The software engineer smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years, and smoking e-cigarettes has reduced his regular cigarette habit to two to three a day. He said he feels better physically.
Friedman supported a ban on flavored tobacco that city voters passed last year. “I feel like it was good to get rid of the fruit flavors for kids,” he said, “but this feels like maybe a step too far.”
If e-cigarettes are banned, he said, he would try to quit nicotine altogether. But, “there would be a point in a moment of weakness where I’d just end up buying a pack of smokes again and then it’s just a slippery slope from there.”
Small businesses in San Francisco are concerned the ban will hurt their bottom line.
Miriam Zouzounis and her family own Ted’s Market, a convenience store near downtown San Francisco. She said e-cigarettes are an “anchor” product: They draw people into the store.
“When people come and want to purchase something at the store and we don’t have that exact item that they want, they’re not going to buy the rest of the items that they might on that trip: a drink or a sandwich,” Zouzounis said.
She said sales from e-cigarettes account for at least $200 to $300 a day in sales. As a board member of the Arab American Grocers Association, she said she believes laws like this mostly affect businesses owned by immigrants.
Abbey Chaitin is a 15-year-old lifelong San Francisco resident. She isn’t drawn to using e-cigarettes, she said, because she has seen peers become addicted to them.
“I’ll see them in class fidgeting,” Chaitin said. “They need it to focus, to function.”
And Chaitin predicted that, regardless of a ban, young people will still get their hands on e-cigarettes: “People my age can find a way around that if they really need to,” she said.
Meanwhile, Juul is collecting signatures for a November ballot initiative to override the ban.
This story is part of a partnership that includes KQED, NPR and Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.