Big Tobacco vs. San Francisco in vaping vote

SAN FRANCISCO — A major tobacco company is pouring millions of dollars into a ballot initiative that would repeal the country’s strongest effort yet to ban the sale of flavored tobaccos, which are attracting a whole new generation of users including children and teens.

A $12 million campaign primarily funded by R.J. Reynolds is urging San Francisco voters next Tuesday to reject the city’s ban on selling flavored vaping products, hookah tobacco and menthol cigarettes. The flavored tobacco comes in brightly colored packages and tastes like bubblegum, mango or chicken-and-waffles, which public health advocates say are designed to entice young people.

Anti-tobacco advocates see the massive R.J. Reynolds campaign as a warning shot to other local governments eyeing similar restrictions as concern mounts about the hazards of vaping. The ballot initiative is a key test of attitudes about e-cigarettes and vaping — specifically whether the public will support a new wave of regulations to limit their use.

“This is clearly the most restrictive measure in the country on flavored tobacco,” said Larry Tramutola, a political strategist running the San Francisco campaign in support of the ban. “If this passes, it will have ripple effects around the country.”

With smoking rates at an all-time low, tobacco companies are increasingly banking on e-cigarettes and other flavored products to boost their bottom lines. New players have also entered the vaping market.

While the industry argues the devices help adult smokers kick the habit, public health advocates contend the flavored products are also getting young people to try nicotine products. Studies also show that young people who vape — inhaling a heated vapor instead of smoking cigarettes — are more likely to go on to become smokers. They’re also ingesting some of the same cancer-causing chemicals in regular cigarettes, research shows.

Often a trendsetter on public health, San Francisco’s supervisors unanimously approved the tough flavor ban last year. It was supposed to go into effect in April but was put on hold after R.J. Reynolds, which owns Newport, the top menthol cigarette brand, secured enough signatures to get the repeal initiative on Tuesday’s ballot.

The company has vastly outspent supporters of the ban, who have received funding from billionaire philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The $12 million spent to fight the ban includes both monetary donations and some in-kind services such as consulting and staff time for phone-banks.

The local battle comes as FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is stepping up federal regulation of tobacco and is considering options to regulate flavored products.

That makes the industry all the more eager to stop what’s happening in San Francisco.

The effort to overturn the ban, known as the “No on Proposition E Campaign,” has blanketed the airwaves with ads that appeal to the progressive city’s libertarian streak,…

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