Last week, the Beverly Hills City Council took an initial step toward becoming the first city in the nation to ban the sale of all tobacco products — with a couple notable exceptions. (More on that later.)
If the ban survives a final vote, it will take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
The question now is: Will this become a trend?
If so, it isn’t a stretch to wonder whether the city of San Luis Obispo could be next in line.
The city of SLO blazed a trail in outlawing smoking in public places — including bars and restaurants — in 1990, a move that made headlines across the nation.
SLO has been at the forefront on several other issues as well, especially when it comes to protecting the environment:
- In 1982, it banned drive-through windows at fast-food restaurants to cut down on air pollution from idling cars.
- More recently, it limited use of Styrofoam containers, plastic straws and plastic water bottles.
- In 2018, it embraced a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2035 — 10 years ahead of the rest of the state.
A ban on tobacco sales could be another logical step, though if San Luis Obispo — or any other city — were to consider similar action, Beverly Hills isn’t the greatest role model to follow.
Oh, it’s saying all the right things.
In a prepared statement, Mayor John Mirisch brags that Beverly Hills has “taken the lead on restricting smoking and promoting public health.”
Yet thanks to lobbying efforts by VIPs like former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Beverly Hills exempted cigar “lounges” — including Schwarzenegger’s fave, The Grand Havana Club.
Hotel guests also will be able to order tobacco products from room service.
In other words, if you’ve got a $745-a-night room at The Beverly Hills Hotel, you can ring up room service for a pack of Marlboros, but if you’re a tourist passing through to gawk at Rodeo Drive, sorry bud. You’ll have to scoot over to West Hollywood.
Excuse us while we choke on that double standard.
And seriously, how effective is a ban if smokers can drive one town over to buy their tobacco?
To really make a difference, the prohibition on sales would have to be regional, or even statewide.
And that would create its own set of problems, such as an increase in smuggling operations and illegal sales, which in turn would put more of a burden on law enforcement.
And what would stop smokers from crossing the state line and stocking up on cartons of cigarettes for themselves and their friends and neighbors — without paying California’s hefty tobacco taxes?
We’ve tried this kind of prohibition before — with alcohol. It didn’t work.
Besides, do we really need such a draconian measure when other, more positive approaches have been working?
The number of smokers in California has been steadily declining, from 23.7 percent of adults in 1988 to 10.5 percent in 2015, according to San Luis Obispo County’s 2018 Community Health Assessment.
San Luis Obispo County has seen a slight bump in smoking rates. In a county survey, 13 percent of respondents were smokers in 2014-16, up from 12.5 percent in 2012-14.
That’s disappointing, but to put that in perspective, obesity is a much more pervasive problem.
In SLO County, 56.4 percent of adults are overweight or obese, again according to the county’s Community Health Assessment. Yet we aren’t talking about banning sugary drinks or potato chips or fast food. In fact, California hasn’t even succeeded in putting warning labels on sodas.
That doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the smoking problem; tobacco remains a public health scourge, both to smokers and to those inhaling second-hand smoke. Health care costs are huge: $13.29 billion annually, with taxpayers spending $3.58 billion each year on Medi-Cal patients who have smoking-related illnesses.
But efforts to educate, to provide help to people trying to quit, to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors and to limit exposure to second-hand smoke are going to be far more effective than banning sales in some random locations, while still allowing them in others.
If we really want to get more serious in cracking down, there are other avenues. Raise taxes even higher. When California’s tax went up by $2 in 2017, from 87 cents per pack, some retailers reported that sales dropped by 50 percent.
And no, California doesn’t already have the highest cigarette tax in the nation. At $2.87 a pack, it’s at No. 9. Washington, D.C., has the highest tax ($4.50) followed by the state of New York ($4.35). In case you’re wondering, Missouri has the lowest tax in the nation: 17 cents a pack.
California could also pursue bans on flavored tobacco, in order to further discourage use by young people, and expand zones where smoking is prohibited. (The state Legislature is considering a ban on smoking at all state parks and beaches. It’s about time.)
Random bans like the one in Beverly Hills don’t make sense; the vote by the City Council there is more of a PR move than an effective strategy.
It would be far better if the inventory of tobacco in California were to dry up due to lack of demand, rather than a heavy-handed prohibition.