The Los Angeles City Council Wednesday 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 smokers lounges.
Under the proposed ordinance, which will be drafted and come back to the City Council for approval, existing smokers 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.
Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez, who motioned to amend the proposed ordinance 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.
“This is an adult activity, so it doesn’t allow for young people to be exposed in these premises,” she said. She proposed an amendment to exempt the sale of shisha, which is the tobacco used for hookah.
That amendment, which passed narrowly with 8 yes votes and 6 no votes, came as the City Council faced demands from the National Hookah Community Association for the city to exempt hookah from the ordinance, calling hookah a cultural tradition.
Arnie Abramyan, president of the National Hookah Community Association, called into Tuesday’s City Council meeting to urge council members to exempt hookah from the potential ordinance.
“Many small immigrant business owners — Armenian, Lebanese, Persian, Egyptian, all the Middle Easterners — over 1,000 households will be out of business … Respect our culture and respect our small immigrant businesses,” he said.
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who is of Armenian descent, on Wednesday attempted 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.
“In my view, the way that you protect Armenian culture … is by not allowing Armenian young people to die prematurely from smoking-related death.”
The Los Angeles City Council was initially scheduled to include an exemption in the ban for menthol cigarettes, but the City Council’s three Black councilmen, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Curren Price, proposed an amendment to remove the exemption for menthol cigarettes, citing the high rates of Black people who smoke menthol cigarettes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the tobacco industry “has aggressively marketed menthol products to young people and African Americans, especially in urban communities.” The amendment passed with 14 yes votes and one absent.
“History has shown us clearly what harmful effects menthol cigarettes have had particularly on the African American community. It is up to use to prevent the repetition of such racial injustices and health inequities,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer told council members in a letter Tuesday that he opposes any exemption in the ordinance, including for menthol tobacco and hookah lounges, saying it would “perpetuate disparities in tobacco addiction and diminish the efficacy of the ban.”
“A comprehensive ban should include hookah flavored products, which are often targeted to youth and disproportionately impact communities of color,” he said. He added that menthol products have been targeted to Black people in the U.S., and that smoking-related illnesses claim the lives of 45,000 African-Americans each year.
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who initiated the ordinance’s process in a November 2018 motion, said he opposes exempting retail sale of hookah and thought it was a double standard, considering the City Council is not exempting menthol cigarettes.
“How could we in good conscience prohibit other things like the sale of menthol cigarettes, if we’re going to then permit the retail sale of other products. I just think that’s a double standard,” he said.
The ordinance request was praised by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ President Matthew L. Myers, who said the City Council “took a critical step forward to protect kids from tobacco addiction, advance health equity and save lives, especially among its Black residents.”
“The Council’s action will crack down on the tobacco industry’s most pernicious tactic for luring and addicting kids — the marketing of flavored products. And it will help end the industry’s predatory targeting of Black communities with menthol cigarettes — a form of institutional racism that has taken a devastating toll on Black lives and health, is a major cause of health disparities, and must be stopped once and for all,” Myers said.
He added that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is “disappointed” that the City Council exempted hookah products from the proposed ordinance, and urged the City Council to end the sale of all flavored tobacco products.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in October 2019 to adopt an ordinance banning flavored tobacco products, including menthol, 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. Tobacco manufacturers and retailers have challenged many of the laws and ordinances, but, in every instance so far, courts have upheld restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco products, finding them constitutional and in line with the Tobacco Control Act.
Tobacco use is the number-one 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 suicides — 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 banning the sale of flavored tobacco products.
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