On November 1, a new tobacco ban goes into effect county-wide, removing flavored tobacco products such as menthol cigarettes from the shelves of local retailers. The institution of this ban, the result of an amendment to County Code 7.92 passed in April 2018, was upheld by the Mono County Board of Supervisors by a vote of 4-1 at Tuesday’s meeting Board meeting.
Prior to the vote, Tom Boo, Mono County Public Health Officer, took the podium to give a presentation, titled “Flavored Tobacco Products: A Youth Epidemic,” that placed the dangers caused by flavored tobacco within the context of Mono County.
According to Boo, tobacco is the primary cause of preventable death and disease in the United States with 480,000 deaths nationwide each year as a result to tobacco usage, nearly 40,000 of which occur in California. Tobacco use isn’t limited to adults, as rising child usage led the US Surgeon General to declare child use of tobacco an epidemic late last year. The culprit driving that epidemic? “Flavored tobacco of various kinds,” said Boo.
Boo then presented statistics about tobacco and why children using tobacco from an early age is particularly concerning. Boo explained that in California, 63% of smokers start by age 18, and 97% by 26, and that 27% of high school students nationwide are currently using tobacco. If that rate continues, says Boo, “1 in 13 children under the age of 17 will die early as a result of tobacco-related disease.”
Although the state raised the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21 in 2016, here in Mono County, only 17% of Eastern Sierra Unified School District 11th graders and 11% of Mammoth Unified 11th graders find obtaining cigarettes to be “very difficult”, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey conducted during the 2017/2018 school year.
5% of Mammoth eleventh graders reported current cigarette usage and 27% reported
current e-cigarette usage, usage rates that land above the state average.
Boo then dove into his PowerPoint presentation on flavored tobacco products, with one slide featuring a quote from an RJ Reynolds internal communication that read “Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market.”
The next slide explained that companies, like RJ Reynolds, work to create products and marketing that appeal to youth, namely flavored tobacco. “Flavors frankly make tobacco more appealing to kids,” said Boo.
Another slide explained the overwhelming majority of flavored tobacco users are children and youth/young adults, pointing to research that found 80% of youth who have used tobacco started with flavored products and 80% of current adolescent users do so with flavored products. “It’s a well-known fact that teenagers like sweet products,” reads another tobacco company communication in the presentation, “Honey might be considered.”
“The data is clear,” said Boo, “It’s about children and youth.”
Some products, such as flavored cigars, are viewed as a gateway to cannabis for young smokers. Boo noted that usage of cannabis wrapped in a flavored cigar wrap, a ‘blunt,’ is “quite popular down in Bishop, apparently.”
This ban, at present, only affects unincorporated Mono County, not the Town of Mammoth Lakes, although town officials are working to draft an ordinance that would bring Mammoth Lakes in line with the rest of the county.
The item is expected to be considered by Mammoth’s Town Council on November 6.
Supervisor Peters was the only member of the board to advocate against the “sunset” of flavored tobacco sales.
“The position of the retailers in my district has not changed,” said Peters (see letter which appears at the end of this story). “They do not sell to children, they do not sell illegally any of the products in their stores.” Peters explained that retailer concerns in Sistrict 4 stem from a worry that banning these products could impact the “economic engine that drives their stores overall.”
Peters also explained that north county retailers feel targeted by such a ban and feel that there was a lack of outreach from the health department on the subject, something Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz noted was “unfortunate.” Yet, she said, “I don’t think that’s a sufficient excuse … to extend this policy for another period of time.”
Supervisor Fred Stump noted that he’d heard similar complaints about lack of messaging in District 2. “We’re being asked to make a choice: the choice is health of children versus a seventy year-old person who likes to fish who may want to smoke a little cigar while they do so … We’re being asked to make that choice and to deny that on the basis of protecting children.”
Stump also expressed an interest in including flavored cannabis products within the scope of the ban, something Peters referenced as well. “We’re maybe not being consistent with what’s legal, what’s not legal.,” said Peters.
The board 4-1 to allow the ban to go into effect, with Peters representing the singular dissenting vote.
Peters posited that by putting the ban into effect, “Mono County is willing to establish a double standard” on the matter by allowing Mammoth Lakes to continue sale of flavored tobacco until/if Mammoth’s Town Council votes to enact a similar ban.
When Supervisor Corless explained that Mammoth is moving forward with banning tobacco products, Peters concluded by saying “I don’t know how often you guys have been in the retail stores up in the North part of the county when you travel that way, but stop in and let them know that because it would be nice if there wasn’t a double standard, but there clearly is.”
The following letter was submitted to Mono County Supervisors prior to their October 15 meeting:
I am writing to you today regarding the sunset of Mono County code 7.92.070 subsection E which you will revisit at your October 15, 2019 meeting.
I would urge you to continue subsection E in this code without a future sunset date. My business had previously agreed to all the other restrictions the Board had placed on tobacco sales and usage. This business has never sold vaping tobacco or any other flavored products other than menthol cigarettes and little cigars.
Our area of Mono County has, for all intents and purposes, one tourist season, that being the summer fishing season. Furthermore, we are only 15 miles from the state line where our tourists can purchase menthol and falored little cigars. If they cannot obtain the products they desire, they have only to take their business up the road and out of Mono County. This includes other products they would have purchased in our area. This is not good for our local OR Mono County’s economy.
We could debate the negative impacts of smoking in general ad nauseam, howevert it is a legal activity for individuals over 21 years of age. I would restate my position of a year ago, that smoking is no different than alcohol, marijuana, certain food groups or some physical activities that all have inherent risks. But smoking is a matter of choice, as are other legal activities.
Walker General Store