Photo by Fried Dough

San Francisco could become the first city in the country to limit the number of tobacco retail permits by district if a local youth development group finds a champion at City Hall.

Over the past five years, San Francisco’s Youth Leadership Institute has collected data and drafted a proposal to combat high densities of tobacco sellers in lower-income neighborhoods across the city.

Across the United States, 111 cities and counties have banned tobacco sales in close proximity to schools. Last week New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed lowering the profile of tobacco in stores by banning public display of the products. YLI representatives said that their law would be the first to set a strict cap on the number of permits allowed in a neighborhood.

“It’s exciting to have our first policy experience and to learn from it,” said Vanessa Marvin of the American Lung Association, a national organization that promotes laws that combat smoking.

As of January, 30 cities and counties in California had restrictions on sales of tobacco products near schools, the majority of which fall in urban areas. San Francisco is not yet among them.

In 2009, a group of YLI youth wrote and championed a policy to limit tobacco density in San Francisco. But legislation introduced by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to ban tobacco retail near schools split the vote, said Patricia Barahona, director of YLI’s San Francisco programs. Neither law passed.

YLI’s current proposal includes a clause that incorporates the core of Newsom’s legislation to ban new tobacco permits near schools. Now the group hopes to find a member of the Board of Supervisors to sponsor the legislation and help bring it to a vote.

District 9, which encompasses most of the Mission, currently has 97 stores that sell tobacco products, according to YLI’s research.

“That’s about 9.6 percent of retail density [in the city],” said Richard Rodrigo, 21, a youth advocate who conducted research for the proposal. “But in District 2, the Marina District, there are 51 [tobacco permits],” which translates to 5 percent.

Tobacco density is a social justice issue, according to Rodrigo and Jesus Icaros, another youth advocate involved in the project. In recent years, they found that the six districts with lowest median income in San Francisco also have the highest density of tobacco permits. The Mission District has the third-highest tobacco density in the city.

“Tobacco is always targeted to low-income communities of color, communities of youth,” said Barahona. “Folks in these communities don’t always have the resources to get these messages and products out of the community.”

“That kind of prevalence of more tobacco retailers in low-income communities is something we’ve seen across the board in California,” said Marvin.

One challenge in garnering support for this type of policy is convincing small business owners that it will not hurt their livelihood. YLI’s current proposal would not take away existing permits, but would ensure that permits expire when businesses in high-density areas close.

“When [people] hear about new permits not being distributed, people tend to associate that with permits being take away,” said Amanda Trescott, a YLI program assistant. The proposed policy would only prohibit additional permits from being distributed, she said.

YLI’s target number for tobacco retailers is 39 per district, which would likely take at least a decade to achieve for higher-density areas, as stores close and their permits expire. The target number is modeled on San Francisco supervisorial District 7, which spans the area from Twin Peaks to San Francisco State University and currently has 38 permits, giving it the lowest rate of tobacco retailers in the city — 5 for every 10,000 people.

A similar ban on liquor licenses was instituted in 1996 in the Mission and is still in place today. That policy, created in response to what some officials called “alcohol blight,” makes it difficult for new drinking establishments to open in the neighborhood. Although the ban is unpopular with some bars and would-be liquor vendors, city representatives said that a high density of liquor stores and convenience markets selling alcohol encouraged unwanted loitering and public intoxication.

District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener recently called the ban on new alcohol permits out of date and “draconian.” He wants to rescind it in order to encourage a thriving nightlight and economy. But Wiener said it’s a different ball game when it comes to the sale of tobacco in a community.

“I think tobacco products are awful and unhealthy and are a real problem,” he said, adding that he had not seen YLI’s proposal and could not comment on it specifically.

Phil Lesser of the Mission Merchants Association takes the view that legislating neighborhood growth has its drawbacks. Market forces generally do more good than individuals trying to legislate a local economy, he says, but adds that he’s conflicted when it comes to tobacco.

“It’s a horrible product that’s caused a lot of anguish,” Lesser said. “In that regard, any legislation that is protecting society, [we as merchants] are usually inclined to back that. We’re members of the community first and merchants second.”

The current alcohol restriction is regulated by the San Francisco Planning Department. YLI’s policy is written as an amendment to the health code, which means the San Francisco Department of Public Health would likely regulate. A health department spokesperson declined to comment on the proposal.

Proponents of tobacco restrictions say they bring financial as well as health benefits. One recent study from the University of California, San Francisco, found that the state’s Department of Public Health tobacco control program reduced health care costs by $134 billion from 1988 to 2008.

Though the draft policy would be the first of its kind, San Francisco has a recent history of restricting tobacco retail. In 2005 the Board of Supervisors passed a law to suspend the tobacco permits of establishments caught selling to underage customers. In 2008, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to prohibit pharmacies like Walgreens from selling tobacco products. In the ’90s, California became the first state to restrict smoking in restaurants and bars.

YLI is currently refining its proposal, and the youth advocates have met with representatives from multiple supervisors’ offices in order to find a sponsor. Supervisor Jane Kim’s office is currently reviewing the idea.

“We’re doing a lot of fact finding and seeing what’s successful in other areas,” said Sunny Angulo, an aide to Kim.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health provides YLI with funding, training and technical assistance.

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