Every election year, San Francisco voters show how much they love the initiative process. Stakeholders who consider themselves more informed or experienced may roll their eyes, but for better or worse, San Francisco more often than not gets a full plate of issues to vote on along with the various races for elected office.
One issue on the coming November ballot with significant public health consequences is an initiative titled "An Act to Prevent Youth Use of Vapor Products,” intended to regulate the sales of e-cigarettes in the City.
If it sounds familiar, that's because the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has already enacted a sweeping ban on vape. And as it turns out, the policy differences and consequences are pretty big - so much so, that other Bay Area cities are looking to follow suit after San Francisco's ban. Livermore has already passed an ordinance, and Richmond and Hayward are also looking into similar laws.
The ballot initiative has been placed on the ballot by a coalition of groups backed mainly by Juul, an industry leader in what they term “vapor products.” The coalition, which numbers over 80 different stakeholder groups, including merchants and vape users, has assembled a crack team of political representation. The team includes Whitehurst/Mosher Campaign Strategy and Media; Nate Albee, a veteran of successful progressive Supervisorial campaigns; and David Ho, who will be handling the field campaign.
If their effort is successful, San Francisco's ordinance, which is an outright ban on both over-the-counter and online sales of e-cigarettes, will be replaced with a regulatory scheme over all aspects of the sale of vapor products, down to the technology used for age verification, and limits on the quantity of product that users can buy. Meanwhile, Juul will supply sellers of their product with special displays and other resources which help them with compliance.
Albee says the campaign to repeal the ban passed by the Supervisors is dedicated to restoring consumer choice, and access to a valuable harm reduction resource, offering his own experience as personal testimony: “I started smoking when I was 17. It took me 15 years to quit smoking. I tried many other ways and what worked for me personally was that I switched of aping and then I stopped altogether. I haven't used nicotine for six years.” He also told us vaping helped his father quit smoking as well.
"We didn't have to go this route,” Albee goes on. “This coalition could've gone the route of, say, simply trying to overturn the ban and leaving it at that; that's not what this is it all. This is replacing a ban which takes away the choice of adults to use this product to help quit smoking, and puts in place a long list of regulations which are the strongest in the country for this type of product. And that's a very intentional thing… We know that bans and prohibition do not work. San Franciscans know that better than anybody… We just ended marijuana prohibition last year."
The compelling interest behind local governments’ favoring of an outright ban of vapor products lies in the widespread use by teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 20% of high schoolers used e-cigarettes in 2018.
“Juul has not been straight on this issue," says Matt Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a national advocacy group which was heavily involved in the fight over the flavored tobacco ban, and will be part of the campaign against the November initiative, which will be run by veteran progressive consultant Larry Tramultola. "They're trying to put San Francisco voters in the position of overturning a law that they've already overwhelmingly supported, as well as tying the hands of the Board of Supervisors on future legislation."
Dr. Stanton Glantz, Director of UCSF's Center for Tobacco Research Control & Education, agrees, noting what appears to be a legislative intent clause in the measure. “Take a look at the language in the actual initiative and you'll see a clause declaring the intent to ‘comprehensively authorize and regulate the retail sale, availability, and marketing of vapor products.’”
Meanwhile, on San Francisco’s political front lines, the fight over vape may bring back the issues of dark money and strange bedfellows to the November vote. In the November 2016 election, industry opponents of Proposition V, a tax on sugary beverages, spent over $21 million to oppose the measure, including on slate mailer organizations which opposed the tax, but also supported the campaigns of candidates, such as now District 1 Supervisor Sandra Fewer and District 5 candidate Dean Preston, who both claimed to support the tax. (Preston is running for D5 again in a special election this November against incumbent Vallie Brown.)
But some Democratic groups will likely feel some heat if they’re tempted to go over to Juul’s side. The governing body of San Francisco’s Democratic Party has passed a resolution supporting the vapor products ban, pledging to reject contributions from tobacco and vapor product companies, “strongly encouraging chartered Democratic clubs to do the same,” and promising “as needed, to address misleading information being provided to the voters on the issue.” One source we spoke to told us that certain Central Committee members will “raise holy hell calling out the sell-outs on this.”
Ironically, the consultant who figured in the campaign appearance problems of 2016, Jim Stearns, is a former employer and mentor of Nate Albee. So we asked him about it:
"This is field game for us for sure, we’re knocking on doors. This is a traditional campaign in every way… We’re having conversations about harm reduction strategies such as safe injection sites and wet houses. If you really believe in harm reduction, you have to carry that all the way down the line. Smokers deserve harm reduction too… I hope that more progressive organizations and people are able to see past the oversimplification with tobacco, and put their money where their mouth is… Those organizations have a process they’re going to go through, and I hope they end up on our side."