Updated at 6:15 p.m. ET
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously 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 United States.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera co-authored the ordinance, and celebrated the final vote. “This is a decisive step to help prevent another generation of San Francisco children from becoming addicted to nicotine,” he says.
“This temporary moratorium wouldn’t be necessary if the federal government had done its job,” says Herrera. “E-cigarettes are a product that, by law, are not allowed on the market without FDA review. For some reason, the FDA has so far refused to follow the law. If the federal government is not going to act, San Francisco will.”
Juul responded to the final vote in a written statement to media, saying the ban will cause new challenges for the city.
“This full prohibition will drive former adult smokers who successfully switched to vapor products back to deadly cigarettes, deny the opportunity to switch for current adult smokers, and create a thriving black market instead of addressing the actual causes of underage access and use,” writes Juul spokesman Ted Kwong.
Two San Francisco ordinances would prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes in brick-and-mortar stores and also online, if the products are being shipped to addresses in the city.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed will now have 10 days to sign the legislation, which she has said she will do. The law would begin to be enforced seven months from that date, in early 2020.
San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton co-authored the proposed legislation.
“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 required to buy tobacco products is 18 years. In California and 15 other states, however, that age is 21. Despite this, use of e-cigarettes, or “vaping,” has risen steeply among teenagers nationally.
Last year, 1 in 5 high school seniors reported vaping in the past month. That’s almost double the fraction who reported vaping in the past month in 2017. Even eighth-graders are vaping in record numbers.
These increases come after years of decline in the smoking of traditional cigarettes by teenagers.
Public health officials are concerned about the rising number of teens using e-cigarettes, because 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 says he’s disgusted with the actions of Juul and similar companies, which, he says, are “putting profits before the health of young people and people in general.”
Despite the tobacco age limit, Walton says, vaping devices are commonly confiscated from students in the city’s middle schools and high schools.
The ordinance is accompanied by another that prevents the manufacture, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes on city-owned property in San Francisco.
That 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 force Juul’s relocation away from the company’s current space, but it would prevent other e-cigarette-makers from renting city property in the future. In a written statement, Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said that, in any case, the company does not “manufacture, distribute or sell our product from this space.”
Juul’s vaping device was introduced in 2015, and the company now controls 70% of the vaping market. About the size of a flash drive, the Juul device is small, sleek and discreet.
In a written statement, Juul Labs says it shares the city’s goal of keeping e-cigarettes away from young people. Company officials say the firm has made it harder for underage buyers to purchase Juul via the company’s website and has shut down Juul accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
But, the company argues, “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, the San Francisco supervisor, doesn’t buy that argument, however. He says swapping tobacco use for vaping is simply “trading one nicotine addiction for another.” What’s more, he says, he’s concerned that for every adult who might benefit, dozens of young people could become addicted.
San Francisco resident Jay Friedman thinks the complete e-cigarette ban goes too far. The software engineer says that he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years and that smoking e-cigarettes has reduced his regular cigarette habit to two to three a day. He says 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 says, “but this feels like maybe a step too far.”
If e-cigarettes were banned, Friedman says, 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 that a ban will hurt their bottom line.
Miriam Zouzounis and her family own Ted’s Market, a convenience store near downtown San Francisco. She says e-cigarettes are an “anchor” product: They draw people into her 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 says.
Sales in the store from e-cigarettes account for at least $200 to $300 a day, she says. A board member of the Arab American Grocers Association, Zouzounis says she believes laws like this mostly affect — and penalize — immigrant-owned businesses.
Abbey Chaitin is a 15-year-old lifelong San Francisco resident. She isn’t drawn to using e-cigarettes, she says, because she has watched peers become addicted to them.
“I’ll see them in class fidgeting,” Abbey says. “They need it to focus, to function.”
And Abbey thinks, 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 says.
Meanwhile, Juul is collecting signatures for a November ballot initiative to override the ban, perhaps before it goes into effect.