Can vapers & big tobacco team up to stop the Cali flavor bans?

RJ Reynolds will pump millions into the fight to save flavors

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After the City of San Francisco passed an ordinance banning menthol cigarettes and flavored e-liquid, it looked like the whole Bay Area — and then probably the whole state of California — would fall like dominoes, one municipality after another passing similar laws.

But that may not happen — and if it doesn’t, we’ll have our old friend RJ Reynolds to thank. The corporation best known for Camel cigarettes is funding an effort to repeal the ban, and Reynolds is prepared to spend millions to get it done.

Reynolds bought smaller rival Lorillard a couple years ago, mainly to acquire Newport, which just happens to be the most popular menthol cigarette brand in the nation. San Francisco itself estimates that about $50 million worth of menthol cigarettes are sold in the city each year.

So Reynolds has good reason to want this trend stopped before it picks up steam. They figure that if they can make laws like the San Francisco ordinance painful to pass and sustain, other cities and counties will shy away from going after their popular smokes.

Let’s Be Real, San Francisco

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Vaping groups have similar goals. San Francisco proper has very few dedicated vape shops (although flavored e-liquid is probably sold in some stores that aren’t primarily vaping businesses). But if flavor ban fever spreads, the whole state could become a bloody war zone for the vape industry — that is, even more than it already has been.

The name of the repeal campaign, and the coalition formed to run it, is Let’s Be Real, San Francisco. And despite the so-so name and the widely hated financial backer, the cause is just. That’s why many vaping advocacy groups have signed on to help, including CASAA, SFATA, and the American Vaping Association.

The local mom-and-pop grocery and convenience store owners are the people who’ll be hurt most by this law.

Not Blowing Smoke, the California organization led by internet guerrilla Stefan Didak, is spearheading the vaping portion of the Let’s Be Real effort. NBS was already leading the fight against the California flavor bans, through its AdultsLikeFlavors.org site. Didak has testified at multiple flavor ban hearings.

NBS has a good Let’s Be Real FAQ on their flavors website.

If you don’t like the idea of vaping advocates joining hands with Reynolds, join the club. But politics makes strange bedfellows, and this strategy is almost certainly more likely to succeed than lawsuits. Besides, other groups like local business associations will also be involved. The local mom-and-pop grocery and convenience store owners are the people who’ll be hurt most by this law.

How does the repeal work?

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By the way, the actual name of the coalition is “Let’s Be Real San Francisco, A Coalition of Concerned Citizens Supporting Freedom of Choice, Adult Consumers, Community Leaders, and Neighborhood Small Businesses with Major Funding by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.”

You can just call it Let’s Be Real.

The goal is to collect enough signatures on petitions to force the flavor ban to a citywide referendum. The way the rules work, once the signatures are collected and verified, the ordinance in question is suspended until the question can be settled by the voters. That means the ban that is scheduled to take effect next April would be held up until an election is held.

The organizers need almost 20,000 signatures from city residents registered to vote in 30 days — more than 650 a day. And the 30-day window has already opened!

Assuming the signatures are collected, the Board of Supervisors could choose to avoid the expense of an election by simply repealing the ban. If they don’t do that, they must either hold a special election, or place the question of repealing the ordinance on next year’s primary ballot.

Get involved!

If you’re a vaper or own a vape business that makes products sold in San Francisco — or anywhere, for that matter (because these laws are spreading) — you can find out more at the Let’s Be Real site.

Note that election laws in California are complicated, and you could violate laws without trying. According to Didak, “Creating your own content incorporating Let’s Be Real slogans, text or images without approval and official designation from the committee may subject you to California election reform laws, which involve reporting of efforts and funding.”

So please get involved in the official campaign if you choose to help out.

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Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.