San Francisco, Big Tobacco set for a showdown over flavored products

Key Points
  • San Francisco's board of supervisors voted Tuesday to uphold its flavored tobacco ban despite a petition against the initiative. The measure will now be added to the June 5, 2018, ballot.
  • R.J. Reynolds, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, has spent nearly $700,000 to fund an opposition campaign.
  • Reynolds owns Newport, the most popular menthol cigarette.
Packages of Newport cigarettes are displayed at a tobacco shop in San Francisco.
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San Francisco residents will vote next year on whether flavored tobacco products can be sold in the city.

The city's supervisors approved a proposal earlier this summer that prohibits the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarette liquid. A coalition later submitted a petition with 33,941 signatures that forced the supervisors to reconsider the initiative.

They voted Tuesday to uphold the ban. A measure to repeal the ban will now be placed on the city's June 5, 2018, ballot, setting up a showdown between the city and the industry that could mirror soda-tax fights that have popped up in cities across the country.

Let's Be Real San Francisco, a coalition of businesses and industry associations, is spearheading opposition efforts. Its major financial backer is R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco company has given $685,170 to the group this year, according to a financial disclosure form.

That money was just for the petition initiative. A spokesman for the coalition said the campaign will mostly include grassroots efforts such as knocking on doors. Still, it is likely that R.J. Reynolds will spend even more money between now and June.

"Certain things are in place to prevent youths from purchasing and using tobacco products," a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds said. "We think education and those measures should be pursued before government starts considering the prohibition and ban of legal products. History has shown prohibition does not work."

R.J. Reynolds owns Newport, the best-selling menthol cigarette. It also owns brands such as Camel and Pall Mall, both of which have menthol offerings. R.J. Reynolds' new owner, British American Tobacco, produces Kool, a menthol cigarette line.

San Francisco estimates the ban would result in a decrease of $50 million per year in flavored cigarette sales. A spokesman for the Let's Be Real opposition group said that would unfairly hurt small businesses.

"It's constantly retailers, especially small businesses, that are highly impacted," he said. "Many rely on tobacco sales and products and follow the rules and regulations and are most harmed from them."

The city says flavored tobacco products attract young people because they mask the taste of tobacco. The R.J. Reynolds spokesman said California's moves to raise the smoking age to 21 from 18 and hike cigarette taxes by $2 already discourage young people.

Regardless of what happens in San Francisco, the issue of flavored tobacco products may become a national one. The Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this summer it would request public comment on what role flavors, including menthol, have on attracting young people to tobacco products and assisting some smokers to switch to potentially less harmful ways to receive nicotine.