Political Notes: Vallejo moves to license tobacco retailers

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday April 27, 2023
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Vallejo Mayor Robert H. McConnell, left and gay Councilmember Peter Bregenzer joined the other council members in asking city staff to prepare a tobacco retail license ordinance that it is expected to vote on later this year. Photos: McConnell, courtesy his Twitter page; Bregenzer, courtesy his candidate page
Vallejo Mayor Robert H. McConnell, left and gay Councilmember Peter Bregenzer joined the other council members in asking city staff to prepare a tobacco retail license ordinance that it is expected to vote on later this year. Photos: McConnell, courtesy his Twitter page; Bregenzer, courtesy his candidate page

Vallejo officials are moving to enact a tobacco retail license ordinance as the next step in its yearslong battle against the use of the addictive product that can have fatal health consequences for users. The effort is particularly focused on reducing the number of LGBTQ youth in the Solano County city who use tobacco products.

"I would ban every tobacco product outright if I could but I recognize I cannot," said Vallejo Mayor Robert H. McConnell at the April 25 meeting of the City Council.

In recent years the city's leadership has banned smoking in its parks and at bus stops. It most recently adopted an ordinance that makes multi-unit housing developments smoke-free.

Nonetheless, Vallejo only received a C grade on the American Lung Association's latest annual report card. Among Solano County cities, Benicia was the only one to receive the highest grade of an A due to its comprehensive tobacco control laws.

In announcing the latest grades from the ALA, county health officials noted that Vallejo had improved its overall grade from an F. However, Solano County as a whole, and its other cities, received failing grades.

"Protecting residents from others' secondhand smoke is important and was made even more important during the pandemic when families were staying at home more," stated Robin Cox, bureau chief for Solano Public Health's Health Promotion and Community Wellness Bureau. "Given the overall lack of affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area, many people do not have options to 'just move' away from a neighbor's smoke that enters their apartment through windows, doors, balconies, shared heating/air conditioning, vents and electrical systems."

In addition to adopting policies that create smoke-free outdoor spaces and housing, the ALA also grades jurisdictions on how they are reducing sales of tobacco products. According to the 2023 report, Benicia is the only city in Solano County with a tobacco retail license, or TRL.

Vallejo Vice Mayor Rozzana Verder-Aliga said she saw the licensing of tobacco retailers in her city as the next step toward eventually having the council adopt a total ban on public usage of tobacco products in the city.

"Hopefully, a tobacco-free environment for all of Vallejo will be adopted by this council," she said.

Without objection, the seven-member council instructed the city's staff to bring back a formal ordinance for it to adopt detailing the specifics of the tobacco retail license, how much it would cost sellers of the products to be licensed, and how the funds would be spent. The money raised could pay for tobacco cessation campaigns and programs for Vallejo residents, for example, as well as be used to hire enforcement officers tasked with ensuring tobacco retailers are following the various laws overseeing sales of the product, from cigarettes to vaping devices.

The council could vote to enact the TRL ordinance in as soon as a few months. It not only would lay out the penalties for retailers who violate the ordinance but could also include banning the distribution of coupons in the city for tobacco products and raising the minimum prices for them.

City Attorney Veronica Nebb told the council the staff's aim will be to achieve "a balance" between how much to charge tobacco retailers for the licensing and what the costs are to the city to hire additional enforcement officers who could perform stings at the stores and other duties.

"We would want to make sure there is a balance so the ordinance itself pays for the enforcement," said Nebb.

Gay City Councilmember Peter Bregenzer worked with the group LGBTQ Minus Tobacco, city youth, and other health advocates to bring forward having Vallejo adopt a TRL. At the council meeting, he teared up talking about how the discussion happened to coincide with the death of his father, who was a tobacco user.

"Today is the eighth anniversary of my father's death related to tobacco, so this is very important to me," said Bregenzer, who won election last November to the council's District 5 seat. "I strongly support this and strongly support a comprehensive TRL ordinance for Vallejo."

As the Bay Area Reporter's Political Notebook column first noted in February, a survey of Vallejo's public school students during the 2019-2020 academic year found that LGBTQ students' usage of e-cigarettes in the last month was significantly higher than among their straight peers. And although significantly fewer students reported smoking cigarettes, usage by LGBTQ students still outpaced that of their straight classmates.

The survey data also found 52% of Vallejo juniors said it was "easy" to get vapes in town. The state health department's food and drug branch also reported that 45.5% of Vallejo stores visited in 2018 sold tobacco to an underage decoy.

Genesis Miguel, a 19-year-old Vallejo resident, volunteers with the Youth Tobacco Control Advocacy and Policy Project. Known as YTAPP for short, it is overseen by the group Bay Area Community Resources.

Speaking in support of the TRL ordinance, she told the councilmembers about serving as a youth decoy and how easy it was for her to buy tobacco products in town. A person must be 21 to make such a purchase, with retailers required to check customers' IDs.

"I went into a store once to purchase a tobacco product and the store cashier asked, 'You are 21, right?' Answering with all the confidence in the world, I said, 'Yes.' He then sold me the product," recalled Miguel.

She added that youth as young as in the fifth grade are vaping due to how easy it is to obtain e-cigarettes and because of the fruity flavors the tobacco for e-cigarettes are marketed in. There is also misinformation about it being a healthier option than cigarettes, noted Miguel.

"There is no harm many have claimed. But the truth lies in the fact that tobacco kills," she said.

According to health advocates there are roughly 100 tobacco retailers in Vallejo. And they tend to cluster near vulnerable populations, such as the city's residents who are LGBTQ and/or people of color, noted Calyn Kelley, who has worked for various youth-focused nonprofits in the Bay Area and has helped lead the San Francisco Tobacco Free Coalition.

"It is no coincidence these retailers have clustered in these areas," said Kelley, who also urged the Vallejo council to ban the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies.

Another advocate for the TRL ordinance is Joseph Hayden, 54, a gay Vallejo resident and married father who volunteers with LGBTQ Minus Tobacco and recently became co-chair of the Tobacco Free Solano program administered by the county health department. He noted how his father and paternal grandmother both smoked and died at age 50.

"My father didn't get to know my daughter or his granddaughter," Hayden told the councilmembers.

His experience resonated with City Councilmember Mina Loera-Mina, who disclosed that her father gave up smoking when she gave birth to her first son years ago.

"The greatest gift my father could give my son was to stop his 30-year habit of smoking," said Loera-Mina, noting that her family home was like "growing up in a chimney. He decided when his grandson was born to change that."

A TRL ordinance is "definitely needed" in Vallejo, said Loera-Mina, adding that it "really hurts" to see the impact smoking has had on families like that of her council colleague Bregenzer.

"These types of deaths can be prevented," she said. "I could not with a clear conscious not support something like this."

No one spoke against the TRL ordinance during the council meeting.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail m.bajko@ebar.com

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