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 electronic 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.
In communities with similar bans, stores like Rotten Robbie typically lose 20% of their overall business, Rojas says. For vape shops, he says that number rises to 50-70%.
At Green Vapors in downtown Santa Cruz, flavored nicotine “e-liquids” represent 60-70% of the overall business, says Nolan Abreu, the shop’s manager, who argues that the products also help smokers get off cigarettes.
Abreu and other vape shop employees, like Caine McClelland, owner of Santa Cruz Vapors, say they’ve always been serious about asking for identification before selling anyone e-cigarettes and flavors, and that they never sell to anyone under the age of 21. Damon Hancock, the tobacco compliance officer for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, said at an April 11 meeting that the county has not seen a major problem with local stores selling to minors.
Lazier, Abreu and Rojas all believe that a prohibition on flavored tobacco products in Santa Cruz County will only create an underground economy for tobacco products. “Vaping won’t be as controlled, and people are still going to do it. There will be a black market,” says Abreu. “Prohibition never works. It won’t work this time around.”
Others have pointed out that the industries of flavored alcohol drinks and flavored cannabis also often appear to be marketing themselves as kid-friendly with colorful branding and large, edgy fonts. Leonard, from the county, says that she can’t comment on any of that, as her purview is tobacco.
If the county loses tax revenue once the flavor ban goes into effect, she anticipates that, “We will be saving much more in health care and other expenses.”
The county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved its new rules last spring, followed by the Santa Cruz City Council in November.
When it comes to ramping up enforcement, the county “will give retailers six months,” Leonard says. “Plenty of time to sell their entire stock.”