Lawmakers push back on ballot initiative challenging flavored tobacco ban

Some California lawmakers voiced resistance to the tobacco industry’s multi-million dollar referendum to upend the state’s flavored tobacco ban Tuesday, which voters will see on the ballot come November.

California voters will be tasked with either upholding or repealing California’s ban on certain flavored tobacco products. The measure, Proposition 31, comes as a referendum to Senate Bill 793, a California law signed in 2020 that prohibits tobacco retailers from selling flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.

The law was meant to take effect in 2021 but was held up due to the referendum qualifying for the November 2022 ballot. The tobacco industry has garnered more than $20 million in support of a “no” vote on Proposition 31, according to Ballotpedia.

If voters do decide to uphold the state’s ban on flavored tobacco products, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it could result in a reduction of tens of millions to up to $100 million a year in state tobacco tax revenues, which would in turn, reduce funding for health care programs and early childhood programs.

Former State Senator Jerry Hill, author of SB 793, labeled the referendum as an attempt by the tobacco industry to “buy for themselves the right to market highly addictive nicotine products to our kids.”

“It is an affront to our democratic process that industries like this think that they can go around the people of California to rewrite the law the way they want,” Hill told lawmakers Tuesday. “This is what California is up against this November: a deep pocketed industry that deals in deception.”

Hill and other supporters are part of the campaign urging Californians to vote “yes” on Proposition 31, arguing that the flavored tobacco ban will stop the tobacco industry from using candy and fruit flavors to hook teens on nicotine.

Supporters of the effort to uphold the ban also noted Tuesday the impact the tobacco industry has had on Black Americans. Dr. Valerie Yerger, a naturopathic doctor and Associate Professor in Health Policy at the University of California San Francisco, told lawmakers Tuesday that in the 1950s, only 5% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes, but today, that number has swelled to 85%.

“Not only is big tobacco’s attempt at overturning SB 793 an extension of their racist attacks on Black neighborhoods, it is an insult to the work so many Black organizations have done to protect our kids from big tobacco,” Yerger said.

Proponents who support the tobacco industry’s efforts to repeal the ban, however, argued Tuesday that the ban would have a greater impact on adults as opposed to children and teens.

“It’s already illegal for anyone under 21 to use any tobacco product flavored or not. Prop 31 is not a ban on flavored tobacco for children – that’s already illegal,” Joe Lang, managing partner at Lang, Hansen Giroux & Kidane, told lawmakers Tuesday. “It’s a ban on legal regulated sales to adult consumers.”

Several lawmakers who were part of Tuesday’s hearing were co-authors on SB 793, including Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who voiced disappointment that the bill is being challenged on the ballot after it was passed by the Legislature.

“It saddens me that we did this here in the Legislature, it was fully vetted, and now the proposition process is going to try to eliminate SB 793,” Leyva said Tuesday. “And it’s just about money. It’s just about corporations making money and there is no shame, there is no care to our young people’s health.”

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