This is part one of a two-part series on vaping. Part two runs next week. — Editor
At the Mission Street Rotten Robbie gas station, a normally colorful display behind the counter now sits empty. General manager Ken Lazier has taken flavored tobacco products off the shelves.
“A lot of people are coming in and asking, ‘You don’t have any of these?’” he says. “They think we’re sold out. And they just walk out the door.”
The store is making changes to follow new regulations on flavored nicotine laid out by the Santa Cruz City Council in the fall.
The council approved an ordinance banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and liquids, as well as flavored tobacco products like cigarillos and flavored chewing and pipe tobacco. The county Board of Supervisors approved a similar ban this month, and the city of Capitola will consider a version on Thursday, June 27. Although the city of Santa Cruz’s ban has technically already gone into effect, enforcement won’t begin until 2020.
The goal of the policy is to keep nicotine from ending up in the hands of kids. Tara Leonard, an educator with the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education and Prevention Program, says that flavored nicotine products appeal to children at a time when more youth are vaping than ever before, with a 78% increase between 2017 and 2018 at the national level.
“This is a relatively new product, and we really don’t know yet what the long-term effects are going to be,” she says. “We absolutely know that these devices are attractive to youth.”
But once enforcement begins, businesses are going to take a big hit, says Jaime Rojas of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO). “It’s not just tobacco sales,” Rojas explains. Businesses also stand to lose revenue from snacks and everything else that customers buy when they come in to pick up their favorite e-cigarette flavors. NATO represents more than half of all tobacco-selling businesses in Santa Cruz County, including Rotten Robbie.
Rojas says that he asked Santa Cruz County officials for an economic impact report to show how much sales tax would be lost if the now-passed ordinance were to take effect. The county declined. In San Rafael—a community smaller than the city of Santa Cruz, with 59,000 people—city staff estimated that a similar proposed ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products could result in a loss of up to $100,000 in sales tax revenue annually.
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