Tobacco industry submits signatures on California referendum to block ban on
flavored products sales
A coalition representing the tobacco industry said Tuesday it has
turned in more than 1 million signatures as it seeks to qualify a
referendum for the November 2022 ballot aimed at overturning a law
banning the retail sale of flavored tobacco products in California.
If the Secretary of State’s office determines there is a sufficient number
of signatures to qualify the referendum, the new law, which was scheduled
to take effect Jan. 1, would be suspended until the voters act on the ballot
measure in November 2022.
The signatures were submitted to the state by the California Coalition for Fairness,
which said in a statement Tuesday that its signature drive showed that voters
are put off by the new law.
“In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, raging wildfires, heatwaves and power
outages across the state, more than one million Californians signed petitions for
the right to have their voice heard on an unfair law that benefits the wealthy and
special interests while costing jobs and cutting funding for education and healthcare,”
the statement said.
The coalition has received more than $21 million so far, largely from companies
including Philip Morris USA and its affiliated U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., as well
as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Opponents needed to collect the signatures of 623,312 registered voters to
quality the referendum.
The referendum was criticized Tuesday by Lindsey Freitas, advocacy director for Campaign
for Tobacco-Free Kids, a leading supporter of the new law.
“We know Big Tobacco has hidden behind smoke and lies for years to hook
generations of young people on deadly tobacco products, and this
referendum is just one more tactic to continue the status quo,” Freitas said.
"If this referendum qualifies for the ballot, we’re confident that
California voters will reject Big Tobacco’s desperate attempt to keep
hooking our kids for a profit. But the delay will be costly and deadly.”
Supporters of the flavored tobacco sales ban accused signature gatherers
of misleading voters by telling them the petitions were for a measure
to ban sales of flavored tobacco products to minors, a charge the coalition denied.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed the new law in August, denounced the
referendum effort when it launched.
“This is Big Tobacco’s latest attempt to profit at the expense of
our kids’ health,” Newsom said at the time. “California will
continue to fight back and protect children from Big Tobacco.”
The law Newsom signed would ban the retail sale of flavored tobacco
products including menthol and fruit flavors, as well as those
used in electronic cigarettes. To win legislative approval, the
bill exempted hookah, expensive cigars and flavored pipe tobacco.
It also does not apply to Internet sales of flavored products
Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who introduced the bill, said flavored
tobacco is used by the industry to attract minors to smoking and vaping.
He cited a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
that found that 67% of high school students and 49% of middle
school students who used tobacco products in the prior 30 days
reported using a flavored tobacco product during that time.
The high cost of qualifying the referendum and delaying the law for
nearly two years would be eclipsed by the profits the industry
would make selling flavored tobacco products in the meantime,
supporters of the ban say. They estimate sales of menthol products
alone will bring the industry $1.1 billion in revenue during
the 22 months that California’s law would be delayed.
The campaign over the referendum is likely to generate heated debate,
following vitriol between the two sides leading up to the
Legislature’s approval of the law.
The tobacco industry ran television ads before the Legislature’s
vote that alleged by exempting hookah, expensive cigars and
flavored pipe tobacco from the ban, legislators gave “special
treatment to the rich, and [singled] out communities of color”
by banning menthol cigarettes.
Black lawmakers called the ads offensive and argued that the
tobacco industry has targeted Black and Latino residents
with marketing of flavored tobacco products, causing
disproportionate harm to their health.
The coalition of tobacco companies repeated their charge on Tuesday.
“SB 793 criminalizes the sale of menthol cigarettes preferred
by people of color and creates special exemptions for products
preferred by the wealthy — allowing the sale of expensive
flavored cigars and pipe tobacco, in addition to hookah,
to remain legal," the group said in its statement.
In pursuing the referendum, the coalition said it agrees
“that youth should never have access to any tobacco products,
but this can be achieved without imposing a total prohibition
on products that millions of adults choose to use.”
The referendum is one of two prongs of the tobacco industry’s
attack on the new law. The companies also filed a federal
lawsuit against the state, seeking an injunction to block
the new law, arguing it is “an overbroad reaction to
legitimate public-health concerns about youth use of
A court hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 10.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.