BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer
Residents and business owners are sending Palo Alto City Council angry letters about a proposal to exempt smoke shops from the city’s ban on e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco.
Anti-tobacco advocates say the exemption puts kids at risk while the owner of the downtown 7-Eleven says it isn’t fair.
Palo Alto City Council will discuss controversial changes to the city’s tobacco ban on Monday (May 18).
Council discussed banning e-cigarettes to protect kids at a Dec. 9 meeting. At the time they asked City Manager Ed Shikada to update the city’s existing anti-tobacco ordinance to include e-cigarettes. Shikada has returned with updates to ban the sale of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco, which critics say targets children.
A memo from Shikada for the council’s Monday meeting says the city’s ordinance update should include an exception for adult-only stores to sell flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes.
This is to protect the city’s five small smoke shops, Mac’s Smoke Shop at 534 Emerson St., Raw Smoke Shop at 265 California Ave., Red Brick Cafe & Hookah Nites Lounge at 235 University Ave., Smoke and More at 3896 El Camino Real, and Smokes and Vapes at 3491 El Camino Real.
Shikada said the stores’ owners say they get 60% of their revenue from flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes.
No new smoke shops allowed
No new adult-only smoke stores would be allowed to open in the city under the new ordinance.
The changes were originally on the consent calendar, where many items are passed at once, for council’s May 4 meeting but it was moved to next week because of pushback from residents.
Jaswinder Singh, owner of Smokes and More, thanked the city for restructuring the ordinance to help small businesses stay afloat.
“I have been in business for almost 10 years and never was found in noncompliance with the tobacco regulations,” said Singh. “The proposed ordinance will give the smoke shops a lifeline to keep operating as responsible adult only stores.”
Amar Johal, the owner of 7-Eleven at 401 Waverley Street, said he was fine with the flavor ban even though it dropped his sales, but said he is “stunned” that the city would let other stores have an exemption.
He said if the city cares about health, council should pick one ban that is the same for everyone. He said the city should also consider that stores are already struggling to hang on because of COVID-19. Johal said sales are down 45% and the 7-Eleven is struggling to stay open.
Anti-tobacco advocates said there should be no exemptions.
Developmental Psychologist Bonnie Halpern-Felsher said the current ordinance doesn’t go far enough. She asked the city to get rid of its smoke- shop exception and ban all retailers from selling flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes.
“The concern should be for the greater public good over the profits of a few shops selling an addictive substance,” she said.
‘Notoriously bad actors’
Jen Grand-Lejano, Northern California government relations director at American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said adult-only smoke shops are “notoriously bad actors” when it comes to selling to kids.
The city did conduct a sting in January to see whether stores were selling tobacco to minors. Of the 17 stores they visited three clerks didn’t ID under-aged undercover operatives. None of those clerks were working at adult-only stores.
Hassan Bordbari, 68, of Palo Alto, was cited at Barron Park Market at 3878 El Camino on Jan. 31. Casey Hornback, 58, of Palo Alto, was cited at the Valero gas station at 3972 El Camino. Stellus Smithin, 23, of Palo Alto, was cited at Ernie’s Wines & Liquors at 3870 El Camino.