San Leandro Councilmember Lee Thomas
wants to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes 
within city limits.

The San Leandro City Council is set to take on the tobacco and vaping industries after its Rules Committee voted Monday to move legislation banning the sale of flavored tobacco products within city limits. The proposal includes flavored “juices” used in conjunction with vaping pens, whether or not they contain nicotine. A more controversial proposal to completely ban menthol cigarettes, however, was put on hold.

The full council is scheduled to discuss the proposed ordinance at its June 5 meeting. The legislation, first backed by San Leandro Councilmember Lee Thomas last November, also places strict penalties on retailer for non-compliance, including a 90-day suspension of the tobacco license for a second offense, and up to a five-year ban for a fifth violation. In addition, the ordinance establishes a minimum number of cigarillos to be sold at 15 per package.

A proposal to prohibit all tobacco sales in pharmacies was moved to a future Rules Committee meeting, as was a suggestion by San Leandro Councilmember Pete Ballew for staff to study a possible moratorium on new tobacco licences.

As the San Leandro City Council increases a push for residents to kick the habit, it was the issue of a full-blown prohibition on menthol cigarettes, proposed by Thomas, that sparked further debate. “I’m bother by this because, statistically, how it’s affecting African Americans,” said Thomas. Many studies show the mint-flavored cigarettes disproportionately affect the health of African Americans, due, in part. to the heavy marketing of the product to the specific demographic.

The proposal, though, was met with a cool response from San Leandro City Attorney Richard Pio Roda, who feared such legislation would be met with a lawsuit. “A complete ban would put us in the cross hairs of one, the [tobacco] industry, and two, the federal government,” Pio Roda told the committee.

San Leandro Assistant City Manager Jeff Kay added, “That question is somewhat untested, legally, at this point in time. To my knowledge there is not a city that has a flat prohibition on menthol cigarettes.” Santa Clara County, said Pio Roda, allows menthol sales only in smoke shops, but the prohibition is not part of a tobacco ordinance, but part of the county’s zoning code.

San Leandro, though, might have some company on the issue. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently proposed a prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. Like San Leandro, its also places restrictions on the number of cigarillos in a package. In neighboring Oakland, Councilmembers Anne Campbell Washington and Larry Reid proposed a city ordinance on Tuesday also banning flavored tobacco, including those used with electronic cigarettes.

But San Leandro could be aiming to go further by taking on pharmacies such as Walgreen’s. CVS already prohibits tobacco sales in its stores, as does Costco. A number of anti-tobacco activists urged the city to pass stronger tobacco prohibitions.

Dennis Ducey, a long-time San Leandro resident and representative from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, said, “The pharmacy portion is huge.” Like several other speakers, Ducey urged the committee to take on Big Tobacco, regardless of any perceived legal threat. “I think this is an opportunity for San Leandro to say we are not afraid of the tobacco industry,” he said.

The early Monday morning committee meeting also attracted a large number of local small business liquor and tobacco retailers who said additional restrictions will make it difficult for their businesses to survive. Others stated tobacco products are legal and they only sell to adults.

San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter described herself as “completely anti-cigarettes,” but worried about the proposed ordinance’s affects on local businesses, especially in light of the council’s approval earlier this year to increase the citywide minimum wage, she said. “I’m very sensitive to what we’re doing to our businesses,” said Cutter, before adding, “I feel that if there is something we can do to get our youth off cigarettes before they start, it’s very important to do that.”

Cutter, though, was not in favor of moving forward with a ban on menthol cigarettes, instead, advocating for San Leandro to monitor San Francisco’s proposed ordinance. Ballew also voiced support for local businesses, although in tandem with the public’s health. “Our job is to represent the business community,” he said, “but our job is also to represent the community at-large.”