The South Pasadena City Council shifted gears last week after discussing a potential ban on the sale of tobacco, electronic-smoking devices and flavored tobacco and instead asked city staff to draft a new ordinance that will focus on youth, banning only electronic-smoking devices and flavored tobacco.
The City Council had requested city staff look into a potential ban of tobacco on July 21, 2021, when it was concluded the ban could be achieved through a change to the existing tobacco regulations in the city.
The proposed ban was brought to the Public Safety Commission during a special meeting on Oct. 18, 2021, and then again during a regular meeting of the commission on Jan. 10. The commission voted 4-1 to recommend that the council approve the total-ban ordinance.
The city requires tobacco retailers get permits for the sale of tobacco, a mandate that was established in 2009.
There is a $120 fee required, which must be renewed every year. The city currently has 11 permitted retailers.
The city has already prohibited smoking in many public spaces, including sidewalks, walkways and pathways — a move city officials made in 2018.
Two other Los Angeles-area cities, Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, have implemented bans on tobacco sales.
South Pasadena retailers include one cigar lounge, three grocery stores, four gas stations and three convenience stores or pharmacies.
“Staff is recommending a carveout for the existing cigar shop on Fair Oaks,” said Alison Wehrle, management analyst for the city, during a presentation on the issue.
Fair Oaks Cigars and Spirits would have been exempt because of a hardship portion of the proposed ordinance. Cigars are the primary source of revenue for the lounge and, if cigars were banned there, the lounge would have to close, Wehrle said.
There were 32 people who spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting, Deputy City Manager Domenica Megerdichian said.
They included people in the medical field as well as local small-business owners. Many addressed councilmembers on the phone from outside South Pasadena, some from the community spoke in-person.
Some of those who spoke pointed out that people could purchase tobacco products at businesses outside of South Pasadena and the tax revenue for the tobacco, as well as any other items purchased, would go to the other community.
One local business owner who spoke was Chad Farah, owner of Ocean Liquor for 14 years, who gave an impassioned speech about his business.
He said he’s owned the store since he was 24 years old and he wanted to let councilmembers know that he is not a “monster” who sells tobacco products to minors. He said he knows how to identify fake IDs and he makes sure his employees also know. He said he’s installed a device that can identify fake IDs.
Farah said his store and a competing liquor store, Foremost Liquor, in business for more than 20 years, have had no infractions for selling to minors.
Farah said he’d reached out to other businesses in the community and they said they have implemented similar procedures to check for fake IDs.
He pleaded with the council to not pass a total-ban ordinance on tobacco products and that the measures taken by local businesses to prevent the sale of tobacco and alcohol to minors have been implemented on their own.
“The government didn’t. South Pasadena didn’t. The police didn’t. We implemented (them) because we wanted to be responsible,” he said.
“I’m asking you to, please, help save my family’s livelihood,” he said, adding that he wanted to be able to pay his children’s college education in the future.
“I am an average Joe, trying to provide for my family. I would fall on the sword if this would do anything to help our youth, but logically (revenues) would just go to the neighboring cities,” he said. He added that he is not pro-tobacco.
“Please, please allow me to provide for my family so they can have a better life than I did… I’m begging you, as a man, asking you guys, please let me provide for my family,” he added.
Another concern to the city would be any legal challenges to the proposed total-ban ordinance, Wehrle said.
The public hearing on the matter took up more than two and half hours of the four-hour-plus meeting.
Councilwoman Diana Mahmud raised a concern about the impact a ban would have on small businesses, such as liquor stores and small convenience stores, and asked that maybe instead the total-ban ordinance could cover only larger businesses, such as big-chain drug stores.
City attorney Andrew L. Jared said, “It was determined it would be very difficult to determine where to draw that line whether the number of employees, square footage, etc.,” he said. “So, the commission went with an all-out city ban.”
Mahmud then suggested the ordinance could be tied to a business’ revenue.
Jared said there was discussion about basing the ban on business revenues, but he said it would be hard to enforce because it would involve actions such as audits.
“There was not a way to do that,” Jared said.
There were some callers who had concerns about banning hookahs as part of the total-ban ordinance, and asked that hookahs not be included because they are often used in cultural activities and festivities by residents from the Middle East.
After hookahs were added to be an exemption, Mahmud said that many African Americans and Asians smoke menthol cigarettes. Out of the same cultural sensitivity, she asked that menthol cigarettes be exempt, too.
She said young people usually don’t smoke menthol cigarettes. Instead, it’s more common for them to smoke flavored tobacco.
When councilmembers were giving their comments about drafting a total-ban ordinance, some raised concerns about how it would impact the small-business community and they had reservations.
Councilman Jack Donovan said the city has already taken several measures to protect residents from the harmful effects of tobacco.
He said he feels most smokers already know the harms of tobacco. “I don’t feel we’re going to change their minds with a tobacco ordinance,” he said.
Plus, he pointed out that the business owners who spoke said they don’t sell vaping devices or flavored tobacco.
Eventually, Mayor Michael Cacciotti said he sensed that there were not enough votes to support a total-ban ordinance. He then suggested switching to have city staff draw up a modified ordinance, banning electronic-smoking devices and flavored tobacco, which received unanimous support from councilmembers.
City Manager Arminé Chaparyan said a new ordinance would take time to draft, particularly because upcoming council agendas are packed. She projected it would be ready for council review sometime in June. It would not go back to the Public Safety Commission for consideration, councilmembers agreed.
During her comments, Mahmud said she wanted to make sure that members of the Public Safety Commission, who originally recommended approval of the total-ban ordinance, understood the reason for the change in direction and that councilmembers appreciate their hard work.
A California law banning the sale of flavored-tobacco products was placed on hold in January 2021 after state officials said a referendum by the tobacco industry qualified to be placed on the ballot for the election this coming November.
The law, approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020, was suspended until voters decide whether to affirm or repeal the ban.