Richmond considers raising tobacco age to 21, banning menthol, flavors

By Mike Kinney

Richmond City Council is considering raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in the city to 21, along with a citywide ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco products.

The council is also considering prohibiting new retailers within a certain distance of schools, and banning the sales of “small packs,” which can include cheaply sold packs of mini-cigarettes or cigars, such as Swisher Sweets.

At its meeting Tuesday, the council directed city staff to draft an ordinance with the proposed new regulations. The unanimous decision followed a presentation by De Anza High students who have spent more than a year investigating the impacts of certain tobacco products on their peers.

The students are part of the Youth Tobacco Advocacy Policy Project (YTAPP), run by Bay Area Community Resources through the school’s innovative health center.

In July, the Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a similar ban, prohibiting the sale in unincorporated county areas of flavored “e-liquids” for electronic vaping devices, menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and libraries. The county’s new rules also ban the sale of cigarillos or little cigars in packs smaller than 10, unless the sales price of a cigar is over $5.

Similar prohibitions of flavored tobacco products have also been implemented in Santa Clara and Yolo counties, El Cerrito, Novato, Los Gatos, San Francisco and Oakland.

For the young members of YTAPP, the issue is personal. Last year, YTAPP conducted a walkaround survey in Richmond and San Pablo in an attempt to assess tobacco’s influence on local youth. Of 31 schools in Richmond, according to the students, there were 35 tobacco retailers within 1,000 feet, all of which sold menthol cigarettes and with a large majority selling small packs for as low as $1. YTAPP also found that 80-percent of youth started with a flavored tobacco product, and an even higher percentage use e-cigarettes that are flavored.

These products, according to YTAPP, are shamelessly marketed to youth with an endless array of candy-like flavors such as apple, chocolate, grape, peach and strawberry, and colorful packaging. The marketing is aimed at getting youth addicted to tobacco products, particularly those in low-income, minority areas, the De Anza High students said.

Mary Jaccodine, co-chair of the Contra Costa Tobacco Prevention Coalition, recently said the “peak age for experimenting with tobacco is 11-13, not 18 and not 21.”

“We’re talking about kids who like candy and who are very susceptible to advertising,” she said. “We already ban flavors in cigarettes and small packs of cigarettes, so it’s not a big leap to ban a 99-cent pack of strawberry or grape cigars.”