Mammoth Town Council met Wednesday night, November 6, in front of a completely packed Suite Z. Some people left after the town announced its new hires and handed out awards to three long-term employees, but a significant number stuck around to make their voices heard as Council discussed a ban on flavored tobacco and vape products.
When Council announced agenda item number 24: “Development of proposed Ordinance banning the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products in the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” a group of 5-6 women got up and formed a line to speak at the podium.
The policy matter did not require action from council. They were there to provide direction to town staff on the type of ordinance they would like to discuss at a future meeting.
The options available are a similar tobacco ban to the one adopted by Mono County. The other option is no ordinance at all.
The floodgates opened when the public was given the opportunity to speak.
Jennifer Wildman, Superintendent of Mammoth Unified School District, started the outcry by pleading for town to ban vaping, claiming “Between a third and a half of our students have tried vaping.”
Annie Rinaldi, Principle of Mammoth High, was the next vaping naysayer to speak, as she described to council what her students go through because of vaping, “I have students who try to quit and they have cold sweats, mood symptoms, trouble sleeping and coughing.”
Then Deena Campbell, the director of the Eastern Sierra College Center, informed council that “Nearly all of our students vape or use tobacco.” As elected officials, she said, they need to value and protect the health of their constituency.
After three mothers spoke, the public comment ended with two middle school Girl Scouts telling council they wanted to see vaping banned because “it could harm the health of our friends and peers.”
Tom Boo, the Mono Public Health Officer, presented a slideshow showing the extent of the vaping epidemic, citing many alarming statistics including “80% of youth who have used tobacco started with a flavored product” and “half a million Americans die every year from tobacco-related causes.” Boo eventually urged council to “enact an ordinance banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products” which would be consistent with the regulations of unincorporated Mono County.
Then it was council’s turn to speak. Councilman John Wentworth wanted consistency between the county and the town while also hedging against the potential unintended consequences of a hastily adopted ban. Councilmembers Lynda Salcido and Kirk Stapp wanted the ban to go through with Stapp even saying he wanted the most extreme ban that could be drawn up.
However, Councilmember Cleland Hoff began to question why people were so riled up, at one point asking “why are we not banning weed vapes?” She compared a vaping ban to the town enforcing kids to wear protective gear at the skate park because both ordinances would save lives.
The reasoning for this ban does not come from of the recent rash of vaping-related deaths around the country. An LA times article titled ‘California officials tell everyone to stop vaping right now’ reads “Most people who became sick had vaped with THC, some with a mixture of THC and nicotine and a smaller number with only nicotine.” But this ban would only ban nicotine-related vaping products ignoring more than half the equation.
Hoff needed someone to clear up her confusion and Rami Akary, owner of Mammoth Vape and Smoke, stepped up to the podium. Akary said he would support whatever his community chose but explained that the problem of teen vaping will not be solved by a ban.
Akary told the Sheet that 70% of his business is from tourism and the children that vape are getting it from the internet or having someone buy them the products at his store, which he says he has no control over. He claimed he worked with officers in town to make sure his products weren’t being sold to underage users.
In a letter to The Sheet published on October 19, 2019, Deborah Bush, owner of Walker General store said “We are only 15 miles from the state line where our tourists can purchase menthol and flavored cigars. If they can not obtain the products they desire, they have only to take their business up the road and out of Mono County.” Akary expressed a similar sentiment to Bush and believes if the ban were to go through people would simply take their business elsewhere.
The meeting ended with Mayor Bill Sauser telling the crowd that he wants to be careful to not “try and legislate behavior” while endorsing a ban of the flavors that are specifically marketed towards kids.
Council directed Town staff to create an ordinance similar to that of Mono County, allowing council to go through such an ordinance point-by-point and create a document that weighs all the issues presented to them.