Hookah - Photo courtesy of Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

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

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 council’s Arts, Parks, Health, Education and Neighborhoods Committee advanced the ordinance with some amendments on March 8, and the City Council approved further revisions on March 30.

The latest draft of the ordinance will be considered by the City Council during its 10 a.m. meeting. It requires unanimous approval and will be revisited next week if it falls short. Next week, the ordinance would require a simple majority to pass.

“Over 100 cities and counties in California have already implemented bans on flavored tobacco products. This is not by any stretch of the imagination a radical concept,” Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said on March 30. O’Farrell said that several family members have died from smoking-related illnesses, including one of his sisters, who began smoking when she was 12 years old.

“Count me among the legions of people who have seen with their own eyes the ways that using tobacco at a young age can lead to a lifetime of compromised health, a significantly reduced quality of life and ultimately death,” he said, adding that “80% of young tobacco users started with a flavored product.”

Under the proposed 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.

Several council members also wanted to ban shisha, used for hookah, under the ordinance, as did City Attorney Mike Feuer. Feuer 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.

“This is an adult activity, so it doesn’t allow for young people to be exposed in these premises,” she said in June 2021. She proposed an amendment to exempt the sale of shisha, which is the tobacco used for hookah.

That amendment, which passed 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 the 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 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.

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.

“Research shows that flavors drive the unprecedented increase in youth tobacco uptake, with over 80% of youth who have ever tried tobacco starting with a flavored product. And that’s why Big Tobacco is using flavors to target kids — as well as limited-income, Black and Brown and LGBTQ+ communities — and grossly profit at their expense,” ACSCAN Government Relations Director Primo Castro said in March. “The tobacco industry’s predatory tactics have resulted in a disproportionate use of menthol products by these communities and a disproportionate cancer burden.”

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