A walk down Mission street is a tour of nearly a dozen smoke and vape shops, mostly immigrant-owned. Nearly all sell a hip alternative to cigarettes: a battery-operated device that emits doses of vaporized nicotine for the user to inhale.
But not for long.
This afternoon, the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote its final approval of a citywide ban on the sale, manufacturing and distribution of all e-cigarettes — a move Mayor London Breed has said she’ll sign into law. This ordinance would make San Francisco the first city in the nation to take such drastic measures against “vaping,” a practice that is marginally healthier than old-school smoking, but still highly addictive because it delivers nicotine.
The vote comes on the heels of a previous city ban on flavored e-cigarettes that passed last year. Brought forth by Supervisor Shamann Walton, the latest e-cigarette legislation is meant to further protect public health, and teens especially, who are increasingly vaping at such a rate as to be classified as an “epidemic” by the surgeon general. More than three million American high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018. And between 2017 and 2018, teens increased their usage by 78 percent, according to 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) data. Once signed by the mayor, the ban will take seven months to go into effect.
“San Francisco has never been afraid to lead,” City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement after last week’s preliminary full board vote to ban the sale and manufacturing of e-cigarettes, which passed unanimously 11-0.
“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. Now, youth vaping is an epidemic. If the federal government is not going to act to protect our kids, San Francisco will,” Herrera said.
The board’s rationale for supporting the ban is clear: Protecting the health of millions of young people who are increasingly becoming hooked on nicotine seems like a no-brainer. But opponents of the ordinance fear that banning e-cigarettes could hurt both adults who are trying to quit smoking by vaping, and small businesses whose revenue is dependent on the sale of these products.
Small mom-and-pop business owners in the city, and the Mission in particular, are devastated by the vote, especially if it is passed without any amendments or tangible steps for mitigation.
Moe Mohomed, an employee of Smoker Friendly, a shop at Mission and 16th streets, said that last year’s ban on flavored e-cigarettes profoundly hurt his business’ bottom line. He said his brother Abdul, who is the owner, told him that profits went down by “probably 30 to 50 percent.”
When asked how the current ban would affect Smoker Friendly, Mohomed said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s going to survive.”
Mohomed previously worked as a driver for Uber, but didn’t find it as profitable as he had hoped. He has been working at Smoker Friendly with his brother for about a year now, and isn’t sure what he will do if the business is forced to close.
Nearly 800 businesses in San Francisco sell e-cigarettes. And Abdul Mohomed is one of many small-business owners who are worried for their businesses.
In a press release from the Arab-American Grocers Association, grocer Rokia Sharifi said, “After last year’s ban, we lost $1,500 a day,” adding that he’d predict this new ban could cause a loss of up to $500 per day.
“The store will not be able to break even if this most recent proposed ban passes. There is nothing else at this point I can bring in to make up for the loss of sales.”
The not-so-small San Francisco business that will be hurt by the ban: JUUL Labs, which controls nearly three-quarters of the e-cig market, and whose stated mission is to help adults quit smoking by developing a “satisfying alternative to cigarettes.” It’s responsible for the most popular form the e-cigarette; Juul, an unassuming device the size of a thumb drive, as sleek as an Apple product, and decidedly appealing to youth.
Until now, JUUL has thrived in the Bay Area and beyond: Its revenue in 2018 was $2 billion.
In this past year, JUUL executives have struck a conciliatory tone, promising that they never meant for teens to use their products. JUUL sent Mission Local a statement on Monday that it shares the board’s goal to keep tobacco and vapor products out of the hands of anyone under 21 — which is why it stopped selling the teen-friendly flavored products (mango! cucumber!), enhanced its online age-verification, and shut down its social media sites.
Still, JUUL unsurprisingly objects to San Francisco’s pending ban.
“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,” said the statement.
The proposed bill is not retroactive, so JUUL will still be allowed to manufacture but not sell its products in San Francisco.
As for Abdul and Rokia and other small shops, their biggest hope of continued livelihood is a proposed working group to address mitigating losses. According to Rokia, this includes reassessing the Cigarette Litter Abatement Fee; the 85 cents per pack of cigarettes sold that every retailer has to pay to the city. It also includes a proposed tobacco license buy-back program for businesses who may no longer profit from having the license, and potentially allocating more funds to the Healthy Retail SF Program, a city initiative that incentivizes corner stores into becoming places where healthy, fresh food is sold — so they don’t have to rely on the sales of e-cigarettes.
Nicolas Cristobal, a manager at Cannabis Boutique on Mission street, said the ban isn’t expected to hurt dispensaries because they don’t have a tobacco license or sell e-cigarettes. But as a smoker, he says he doesn’t think the bill cracks down on underage vaping in exactly the right way.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “I don’t want little kids smoking. But adults should be able to make their own choices.”