Eager to curb vaping without further harming the local economy, Palo Alto's elected leaders agonized on Monday night over a seemingly impossible question: How can you ban sales of vaping products without killing off smoke shops that depend on these sales?
After hours of debate, the council voted 4-3 to move ahead with a ban on electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco. In doing so, it rejected a proposal from city staff to exempt from the ban adult-only stores that would likely have to shutter as a result of the ban. Once the ban takes effect later this year, it would leave Palo Alto with one of the region's most stringent prohibitions on vaping, effectively banning sales of all vaping equipment and flavored tobacco throughout the city.
The council approved the ban despite warnings from Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel that the prohibition will likely put smoke shops out of business, though some may try to stay alive by relying on other products.
The council's decision to institute a ban on vaping mirrors a similar action taken by Santa Clara County last November. Because Palo Alto has numerous adult-only stores, Public Works staff proposed carving out an exception for them while banning vaping products at other establishments that sell them, including gas stations and convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
The staff recommendation met with significant resistance from school advocates, local parents and health advocates from groups such as the American Cancer Society. Jade Chao, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, was part of a crowd of speakers at the virtual meeting who opposed this exemption for adult-only stores.
"These shops make it easy for teens to get vaping products by just walking down the street," Chao said. "Parents and students are begging you to please act and send a clear message on teen vaping."
While the council took a unanimous stance against vaping in December, when it directed staff to return with a proposed ordinance, members could not reach consensus over the blanket restriction, which some argued would harm — and possibly kill — local institutions like Mac's Smoke Shop. Mayor Adrian Fine, Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Liz Kniss all voted against the proposed ordinance, arguing that it goes too far.
Kniss, a retired nurse, called Mac's "a piece of Palo Alto" and noted that many businesses will already be killed off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fine also suggested that keeping adults from legally purchasing smoking devices is a step too far. He also said he is worried about running stores out of Palo Alto.
"That worries me under any circumstances, but especially these circumstances," Fine said. "It just seems too far. We're saying no tobacco sales in Palo Alto, period. … Will we do the same thing with alcohol in a couple of years? I don't know. It's not exactly what I envision for our community."
DuBois agreed and noted that the businesses that would likely have to shutter have been "responsible stores in our community." According to staff, the ban would particularly hurt Mac's Smoke Shop; Raw Smoke Shop; Red Brick Café & Hookah Nites Lounge; Smoke and More; and Smokes and Vapes. All of these businesses have reported that 60% or more of their revenue is from sales of flavored tobacco or electronic cigarette products to people over age 21.
"I understand the emotional urge to outright ban all these stores and run them out of town," DuBois said. "I really think it's government overreach and it goes beyond what we need to do to protect kids."
Fine had proposed delaying the implementation date for the new ban until Sept. 1 to give more time to adapt. The proposal fell by a 3-4 vote, with only Kniss and DuBois supporting him.
The four council members who favored the more stringent ban each argued that health consideration should take precedence over business. Each supported moving ahead with the ban, with no exceptions and with as little delay as possible. Councilwoman Lydia Kou made the motion to proceed with the prohibition that will mirror Santa Clara County's and said she hopes business will adapt to the new rules.
"They have adapted in the past and there's a lot at stake," Kou said.
Bobel suggested that places like Mac's, which also sell newspapers, snacks and other products, would probably try to hang on even with the new rules. The three stores that don't have any other products — Raw Smoke Shop, Smoke and More, and Smokes and Vapes — "would probably have to close relatively immediately," he said.
Council members Alison Cormack and Eric Filseth each acknowledged the challenge of passing laws that hurt local businesses during a pandemic. It's "horrible" to have to make things worse, Cormack said.
"But this is a public health issue. … This is not going to solve the problem, but it will send a signal that we want means restriction," Cormack said.
Several retailers pushed back against the new prohibition. Lori Khoury, co-owner of Mac's Smoke Shop, told the council that the store fully supports keeping tobacco products out of the hands of teens by imposing more restrictive measures.
"But we feel a change in the ordinance can best be handled with a scalpel and not a sledgehammer," Khoury said. "This needs to work for both sides."
Lori and Neil Khoury also argued in a letter to the council that taking away the right of stores like Mac's from selling tobacco products "won't solve the teen vaping problem, but it certainly will devastate the livelihood of good upstanding people who aren't responsible for tobacco getting into the hands of teens."
"If Mac's Smoke Shop doesn't receive an exemption from this ordinance, this 85-year-old Palo Alto institution, which has survived World War II, the Vietnam War, the dot-com bust, recessions, etc., will not survive," they wrote.
Other retailers said they support the ban, provided it doesn't include exceptions. Amar Johal, owner of the downtown 7-Eleven, said that when the city banned pharmacies and retailers like his from selling flavored tobacco last year, his store was able to adapt its business model, he said.
However, it could not help customers obtain a less addictive alternative because they were able to just go down the street to an "adult-only" store and get flavored tobacco. Including an exemption, he said, would only divert sales from businesses like his to the handful of "adult-only" stores, he said.
"I'm totally for the ban, as long as exemption is removed," Johal told the council.