The Palo Alto City Council reaffirmed on Tuesday its decision to ban flavored tobacco throughout the city, despite an attempt by three members to exempt Mac's Smoke Shop and other adult-only stores from the prohibition.
In a vote that mirrored its action on May 18, the council voted 4-3, with Mayor Adrian Fine, Vice Mayor Tom DuBois and Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting, to move ahead with the citywide ban. The council was set to formally adopt the ban on its "consent calendar" on June 8, but agreed to delay it and scheduled another full discussion on the topic.
The Tuesday discussion changed little, with the council voting along the same lines as it did on May 18. Those in the majority — council members Alison Cormack, Eric Filseth, Lydia Kou and Greg Tanaka — all supported the broader ban, while Fine, DuBois and Kniss all said the city should exempt stores that only serve customers who are 21 years old and above.
Once again, the council heard from about two dozen speakers, including school advocates, parents, doctors and members of the American Cancer Society, all of whom supported the ban without exceptions. It also heard from a handful of adult-only retailers who argued that the city will effectively put them out of business.
Lori Khoury, co-owner of the iconic Mac's Smoke Shop on Emerson Street, told the council that with the new ordinance, "You guys are going to put us to our death." She also rejected the argument from some critics that Mac's can change its business model to stay in business. The store has been selling flavored tobacco for decades, she said.
"We have created a history of a business and it's worked for us and now someone will just take it away from us and squash it," Khoury said. "And we're going to have to file for bankruptcy and we're going to have to shut our doors."
Fine, DuBois and Kniss all said they strongly support passing a law banning vaping products but suggested that prohibiting adults from purchasing flavored tobacco is a step too far.
"I don't smoke, but I believe adults should be able to purchase tobacco from a personal freedom perspective," DuBois said.
Fine also said he believes totally banning a legal product is "a bit of a government overreach."
"I do worry … that we are driving longtime businesses out of Palo Alto," Fine said.
Most council members however, sided with the majority of speakers, many of whom cited tobacco's harmful impacts and maintained that many businesses that bill themselves as "adult only" also sell to youth.
Jennifer Grand-Lejano, Northern California government relations director at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, was one of several speakers who argued that if flavored tobacco remains in the community, it will find its way into the hands of the city's youth.
"We cannot put the profit of a few retailers over the health of our kids," Grand-Lejano said.
Patricia McDaniel, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who specializes in tobacco control, told the council that smoke shops are already being forced to change their business model. The adult smoking rate fell by 57% between 1988 and 2017, she said, and currently stands at about 10%.
"Tobacco stores will need to transition to other products regardless of what you decide," McDaniel said. "Your goal should be to prioritize public health considerations and the proposed ordinance does just that."
The council majority concurred and voted to approve the new ordinance, with no exception for adult-only stores.
"That is something that, as a healthy community and a healthy city, we need to ensure that this is a product that is not going to be sold here in Palo Alto," Kou said.