Galen Kusic, Editor
(This article was originally published in the Nov. 27 print edition of the Herald)
At the April 16 Benicia City Council meeting, Council directed staff to amend the Benicia Municipal Code to include additional smoke-free protections in outdoor places and multi-unit housing and to develop a tobacco retailer license ordinance that would regulate tobacco sales as it pertains to products, pricing, and proximity/density.
After a lengthy discussion, testimony from Solano Public Health, students and an extensive staff report from Police Chief Erik Upson and Officer Patti Baron, Volunteer Coordinator and point person on reducing the harm of tobacco and other drugs, the council passed both ordinances at the Nov. 19 meeting.
The council unanimously approved the first ordinance change effectively banning the sale of flavored tobacco products within Benicia. The second ordinance change bans smoking in public places and multi-unit housing (two or more attached dwellings). The Council voted 4-1 with Councilmember Steve Young dissenting.
“I want to thank everyone that worked on this,” said Mayor Elizabeth Patterson. “It is such a delicate issue.”
The purpose and intent of these changes is to protect the public health by providing the orderly regulation of businesses selling tobacco and protections against secondhand smoke.
“This has been, to some degree, a decade in the making,” said Upson. “We understand the challenge of this issue.”
The ordinance entails a comprehensive tobacco prevention plan, with amendments to smoking regulations that include tobacco retailer licensing, smoke free public places, smoke free multi-unit housing and alignment with state law PC 6404.5.
Tobacco retailer licensing ordinance
The tobacco retailer licensing ordinance requires all sellers of tobacco products to obtain a license annually while requiring all sellers to follow local, state and federal tobacco control laws, while instituting sanctions for violations include fines, suspension and revocation.
The ordinance involves banning the sale of all flavored tobacco products, e-cigs/vape devices and liquids with no sales of drug paraphernalia. Pricing controls include enforcing the minimum pack size of 10 for low cost cigars with a minimum pricing of $7 a pack. It also bans the redemption of discount coupons/promotions.
“The higher the price, the fewer teens purchase these products,” said Baron. “These have all been shown to be effective in deterring teen use.”
There are currently 17 tobacco retailers located within the city, two of which are within 500 feet of schools. The recommendation would be to cut that number to 16. The proposal would limit the number of tobacco licenses issued within the City to one outlet per 1,750 population. It would include no sales of tobacco in pharmacies and limit proximity to youth-populated areas to 1,000 feet, while other tobacco retailers and cannabis dispensaries would be within 500 feet. Rite-Aid still currently sells tobacco products, but they reportedly would have no trouble with the ban and have already cut back on sales of flavored tobacco products.
“There is no intent to close any existing tobacco stores,” said Baron. “New owners would be required to apply for a new license.”
180 jurisdictions within California have adopted tobacco restriction laws, including Sacramento, Yolo, Sonoma, Marin and Contra Costa counties. Alameda County has 10 cities that have adopted regulations.
Statistics show that while traditional cigarette use among teens is down dramatically since 2011, e-cigarette use continues to climb, with an estimated five million teens using nationwide.
Questions and concerns by business owners and residents were voiced at community outreach meetings. The Benicia Economic Development Board raised issues with any changes to the current smoke ordinance, which could penalize businesses for simply having an individual outside smoking. The concern of confrontation with a smoker is another issue that was raised.
Current businesses will be grandfathered in and will not be affected if they comply with the new rules. If a business closes and a new business comes into the same location, the ban would be in place if it falls within the buffer zone.
Smoke free public places and multi-unit housing ordinance
Over 113 Calif. cities have adopted comprehensive smoke-free outdoor air protections, including all jurisdictions in Sonoma and Marin County, while 13 jurisdictions in Contra Costa and 14 in Alameda have done the same.
Smoke free public places provisions include a ban on all recreational areas, service areas (bus stops, ATM’s, etc.) dining areas (restaurants and bars) outdoor places of employment, sidewalks in commercial zones and public outdoor events. These bans would be set at a reasonable distance of 20 feet.
Residential community outreach was done within the City, and reportedly the majority of residents asked to adopt all of these provisions. Property owners were invited to two informational meetings. Benicia currently has 2,773 attached housing units, with four large apartment complexes already smoke-free, including Club Pacifica (224 units) Sterling Heights (120) Waterstone Terrace (60) and Capitol Heights (75).
“I think it’s discriminatory against lower and middle income people,” said Young. “We are putting these rather draconian restrictions on people that can’t buy a house. I’m not a smoker, but they have rights also.”
62 cities/counties in Calif. have 100 percent smoke-free multi-unit-housing protections. The ordinance would include no smoking in all living units, all common areas and a no smoking clause in all leases. For HOA and property owners – signage and notification would be required, including a definition of second-hand smoke as a nuisance.
Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge brought up several concerns, including outdoor dining, potential loss of business to retailers and where the ban would actually take place. Current law allows for smoking in outdoor dining areas. The ordinance would ban smoking on any sidewalk 20 feet away from a business.
“If you wanted to smoke, where could you go?” she asked.
“There are a lot of areas where you can still smoke,” said Upson.
Health officials, students speak out
Several public health officials, numerous high school students and Solano Supervisor Monica Brown spoke in favor of the ordinances and the dangers smoking/vaping poses to youth and the community at large.
“We strongly support two tobacco prevention ordinances,” said Robin Cox, Senior Health Services Manager, Solano Public Health. “Thousands of flavors are being marketed to our youth, and lacing them with three times the normal amount of nicotine. We know of no safe level of exposure to tobacco. When used as directed, these products kill, and kill prematurely.”
Wendy Loomis of Solano Public Health noted that while the numbers point to use of tobacco and e-cigarettes are down among Benicia teens, half of Benicia 11th graders surveyed note it is very easy to obtain these products.
“Just as smoking rates reached an all-time low and we had the tobacco industry on the ropes, as one Benicia leader put it, the industry reinvented itself and introduced new products that hooked the next generation on nicotine,” said Casey Gallagher, Health Education Specialist at Solano Public Health.
Benicia is the first in Solano County to enact the ban, potentially setting a strong example and encouragement for neighboring cities to follow suit.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for the council to promote health to everyone in the county,” said resident Mary McDonald.
Mia Chow, student at Benicia High School spoke in favor of the ban.
“I have been able to witness the great increase of vaping among my peers,” she said. “Teens become curious about the many unique flavors of tobacco products. The reason I am here today is to address the need for preventing the normality of vaping. These products are being targeted toward my peers.”
Students spoke about how normal it is for students to vape in the bathroom and in the back of class.
Benicia High Vice Principal and Youth Action Coalition Chair Kathrine Cole commended the council for this comprehensive plan. She explained that high school administration is working hard to address the vaping crisis and educating staff on what to look for.
“We were catching one student per week last year,” she said. “One student per day is caught this year. We simply can’t catch them all…So many students don’t want to use a restroom because vaping makes them feel unsafe. These are regular Benicia kids making bad choices. They have no idea what they’re doing to their bodies. We can’t do this alone. We need the entire community to help us.”
City-wide tobacco ban in the future?
Beverly Hills was the first city in the country to ban the sale of all tobacco products within the City as of 2021. Councilmember Tom Campbell inquired what it would take to do the same in Benicia.
“I think we might want to consider going further than what this is,” he said.
Benicia first banned tobacco in the workplace in 1987 and banned smoking in parks in 2003, long before it became state law.
“I can go over a lot of reasons why it’s time to start thinking about that,” said Campbell, citing the seemingly endless negative health effects of tobacco. “It’s time to maybe follow the lead of at least one city in Calif.”
Mayor Patterson addressed the council to see if this could be a possibility moving forward, and it was made clear that banning tobacco completely in Benicia is on the council’s radar.
“This concept is very radical, but I’d consider it,” said Vice Mayor Strawbridge.
Councilmember Young noted that something like this would need to go on the ballot for voters in Benicia to decide, citing that he thinks it is a “little too intrusive.”
“I don’t think our own personal beliefs should override what is a legal product,” he said.
Councilmember Lionel Largaespada explained that a lot of things needed to be considered before taking the next step of a total ban.
“I would support the ban,” said Patterson. “It’s one of those issues – it shouldn’t exist. It’s a hideous death for very many. I’m prepared to be bold and bodacious. I just don’t think it’s the right time.”
Council directed staff to look into the potential of a total ban of tobacco within the City.