LA City Council votes to ban flavored tobacco, with exception of hookah

The Los Angeles City Council Wednesday banned the sale of flavored tobacco in the city, with an exception for hookah lounges that meet certain conditions.

The ordinance will go into effect on Jan. 1. It does not ban the possession or use of flavored tobacco for people over the age of 21.

In June of last year, the council directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance to ban flavored tobacco and menthol cigarette sales in the city, but exempted hookah tobacco products at existing lounges.

The ordinance, which underwent amendments in March, passed 12-0 Wednesday.

Under the ordinance, existing smoke lounges will be able to sell hookah products for on-site or off-site consumption, but the city's 4,500 tobacco retail stores will be banned from selling flavored tobacco, including hookah tobacco.

A representative for the National Association of Tobacco Outlets thanked council members before the vote Wednesday for "finding a middle ground on the issue of flavored tobacco and listening to the voice of retailers throughout the city" who sought a delayed enforcement date of Jan. 1.

The council was initially going to vote last June on requesting an ordinance to ban flavored tobacco with an exemption for menthol cigarettes, but the body's three Black councilmen at the time -- Mark Ridley-Thomas, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price -- amended the motion to remove that exemption, citing the high rates of Black people who smoke menthol cigarettes.

"Menthol is included in this ban, as it should be," Harris-Dawson said before the vote Wednesday. "It is a flavor just like every other flavor and it would have been extremely disappointing if we had said we're going to protect people and children from uptake of tobacco, except for the flavor that we know Black people first and Latinos second use the most."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tobacco industry "has aggressively marketed menthol products to young people and African Americans, especially in urban communities."

Carol McGruder, of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Black Leaders Against Tobacco Injustice, told council members ahead of the vote Wednesday, "Just want to tell you how our hearts are full as we stand with the great city of Los Angeles to get on record that we will no longer sell these deadly products in our communities into our children, particularly the African American community that has been so perniciously and racistly targeted by the tobacco industry for decades."

Council members heard Wednesday from representatives of the American Heart Association, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the American Lung Association, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Black Leaders Against Tobacco Injustice, the Los Angeles Youth First Tobacco Coalition and more organizations in support of the ban on flavored tobacco.

Councilman Paul Krekorian thanked the coalition for their activism and pushing the council to take action.

"What you've made happen is the second-largest city in America is setting the example for America, thanks to you. And thanks to you, there will be thousands and thousands and thousands of people that are going to escape the pernicious clutches of one of the wealthiest, most powerful industries on planet earth -- thanks to you and your activism," he said.

Several council members also wanted to ban shisha, used for hookah, under the ordinance, as did City Attorney Mike Feuer. Feuer, who is tasked with writing the city's laws at the City Council's request, transmitted a draft of the ordinance to the City Council in September, but he urged the council to amend it to include a complete ban on all flavored tobacco products, including flavored hookah.

"A complete ban in the city of Los Angeles on the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including flavored hookah, has the potential to be life-saving," Feuer said then, adding that 3.6-million kids nationwide are using e-cigarettes, which he called a "gateway" to regular cigarettes.

Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who motioned last June to amend the original ordinance request to allow hookah products to be sold for off-site consumption, as well as on-site consumption at lounges, said she worried about the impact on small business owners, who also rely on selling hookah products for off-site activity.

That amendment, which passed last year eight votes to six, came as the City Council faced demands from the National Hookah Community Association to exempt hookah from the ordinance, calling it a cultural tradition.

Councilman Paul Krekorian, who is of Armenian descent, attempted during the June 16 City Council meeting to counter arguments that hookah is a cultural tradition.

"There has been a lot of discussion ... about hookah and its cultural significance to some immigrant communities, and I have to say that argument has bothered me a lot because I've never smoked a hookah; people in my family, my Armenian extended family, do not smoke hookah. Armenian culture is defined by its music and its art and its literature and its faith ... it's not defined by hookah," Krekorian said at that meeting.

"In my view, the way that you protect Armenian culture ... is by not allowing Armenian young people to die prematurely from smoking-related death," he said.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in October 2019 to adopt an ordinance banning flavored tobacco products and to call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to pass a statewide ban on vaping.

On Aug. 28, California became the second state in the nation to pass statewide restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco products, following Massachusetts. Tobacco manufacturers and retailers have challenged many of the laws and ordinances, but courts have upheld restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco products, finding them constitutional and in line with the Tobacco Control Act.

According to national data, tobacco is the No. 1 preventable killer in the United States, resulting in more deaths than the number of people who die from alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murder and suicide combined.

Every day, thousands of young people will use a tobacco product for the first time, and many of those tobacco products will be flavored. In California alone, 36.5% of high school students report using tobacco products. Of those, 86.4% reporting using a flavored product, according to the California Attorney General's Office, which filed a brief in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Los Angeles County's ordinance.

The City Council's steps toward banning flavored tobacco have been celebrated by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Lung Association.

"Ending the sale of flavored tobacco products in the City of Los Angeles will save lives, help reduce unjust disparities in tobacco use, and will prevent young people from becoming hooked on nicotine. We know that nearly 80% of children who use tobacco products begin with a flavored product, and that the flavor of menthol has long been used by the tobacco industry to target communities of color as well as the LGBTQ+ community," American Lung Association in California Advocacy Director Erica Costa said Wednesday. "Research shows that ending the sale of menthol cigarettes would result in a significant number of people quitting smoking."