When Jaklin Java and her brother opened the doors of their C&S Shell gas station and convenience store 17 years ago in Mission Hills, these first-generation Americans fulfilled lifelong dreams of owning a business in California and creating jobs in their new community. Despite increasing resale taxes on gasoline and the continual increase in the cost of doing business in their new hometown, Java and her brother have managed to keep their business open, support their families, and the families of their four employees.
As with many convenience store owners in Los Angeles, Java works long days. She greets customers who fuel up cars, grab snacks, and purchase critical supplies like toilet paper, soap, eggs, bread, and milk. And if you’re like Ashafaq Khan, the man Zakir Malek has entrusted to manage his 99 Cent Discount Store for the past 20 years; you take great pride in the relationships you’ve made with your customers and neighbors over time.
When COVID-19 forced people to hunker down, convenience store owners like Java and Malek and their employees, like Khan, embraced their designation as an “essential business.” Khan recalls that’s when he and his boss started delivering food and other goods to customers’ homes free of charge. When they saw some customers were short on cash, they didn’t hesitate to spot them until they got back on their feet, despite the impact on their own livelihoods. Khan says, “It’s been the right thing to do. We’re a community store, after all.”
Today, however, Java, Malek, Khan, and thousands of other small business owners like them across the city are worried. That’s because the city officials who leaned on them during the most significant health and economic crisis of the century are bowing to pressure from anti-tobacco groups and are considering an ordinance that would bring their businesses to their knees. These well-meaning but uninformed policy makers want to ban the sales of flavored tobacco products. While this sounds like a good idea on the surface, dive deeper, and you find more reasons why it’s not.
Jobs and taxes
The National Association of Convenience Stores reports in 2020 that tobacco products accounted for 27.8% of inside-store sales. Of those sales, retailers estimate 75% came from the legal sales of flavored tobacco products. The tobacco customer’s ancillary purchases, like groceries and gas, kept doors open, sustained and created jobs, and kept taxes flowing to pay for critical government services. Prohibiting the sales of these adult products in the city will, at best, lead to job cuts, and at the worst, shutter businesses. Furthering the damage to the local economy, city leaders would send sales tax dollars to neighboring cities and states where there are no such bans.
Study shows flavored tobacco bans may indirectly push minors toward cigarettes
A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics is believed to be the first to assess how complete flavored tobacco sales bans like the one being considered in Los Angeles and other California municipalities affect youth smoking habits.
The analyses by Yale School of Public Health’s Abigail S. Friedman, PhD, found that, after San Francisco banned the sales of flavored tobacco products including e-cigarettes, the city’s high school students’ odds of smoking conventional cigarettes actually doubled. That’s right. Many teens reported that they stopped vaping and started smoking and some bypassed vaping altogether and went straight to smoking. The author said about her research, “Even if it is well-intentioned, a law that increases youth smoking could pose a threat to public health.”
Responsible retailers are partners in the fight to keep kids from using tobacco
Laws already on the books require tobacco retailers like Java and Malek to verify customers are 21 or older before they sell these products.
Tobacco is a regulated product that is sold by licensed sellers who face hefty fines if they don’t card.
According to the FDA, retailers in Los Angeles have a 98% compliance rate with age-verification laws. They support strict enforcement of current laws and see themselves as partners in the fight to keep teens from vaping and smoking. If city leaders prohibit the sales of these products by licensed retailers, people who enjoy tobacco products will turn to the unregulated illicit market. You can bet these tobacco dealers aren’t carding, and they’re certainly not paying taxes.
The Centers for Disease Control’s 2020 National Youth and Tobacco Survey confirms that teens turn to tobacco products to impress their friends and look “cool.” You might say, “Nothing’s changed. It was the same when I was growing up.” The fact is things have changed. The tobacco industry was banned 30 years ago from advertising cigarettes. Years of tobacco education campaigns appear to be making an impact. The number of teens nationwide using e-cigarettes (vaping) is decreasing on both a national and state level. Of course, there is still plenty of work to do and that’s where responsible retailers come in. Those who want to keep tobacco out of the hands of teens should consider law-abiding businesses as gatekeepers on the front lines, not enemies trying to impede their efforts.
Angelenos in food deserts depend on locally owned markets
The Los Angeles City Council is overstepping California voters who, through the democratic process, will decide the fate of flavored tobacco in a November 2022 referendum on SB 793. Interest groups will tell you this issue is about destroying “Big Tobacco”, but the real victims are the thousands of family owned businesses in Los Angeles and the millions of residents, many with low incomes, who rely on them.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas Map shows thousands of low-income Angelenos live more than a mile from a supermarket or in areas where 100 housing units don’t have a vehicle and are more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket.
Convenience stores may be the only source of food for those living in “food deserts.” Whether they are here in the future depends on the people elected to office and who depend on these essential markets themselves for bottled water, a tank of gas, and a Snickers now and then.
Flavored tobacco bans don’t work. They hurt businesses, they infringe on civil liberties, and research shows they may have the opposite intended effect.
Money Samra is president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association. Tracy Hernandez is CEO of the Los Angeles Business Federation. Hugo Merida is chairman of the Los Angeles Metro Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.