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Flavored tobacco is now off the market in California

While California's flavored tobacco ban is being hailed by health organizations, convenience store owners say the products are being unfairly targeted.

Hanny Thomas saw an uptick in flavored tobacco sales at his Inner World Smoke Shop in Oceanside, just before California's new ban on those products took effect.

“The demand is very, very high," Thomas said. "They don't want to go back to smoking cigarettes, that's for sure.”

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Thomas is the shop's general manager, and flavored tobacco has been a big part of his business — but now it’s illegal.

“What I've been hearing is that customers want to drive to Vegas or Arizona; they're actually willing to do the impossible to get a hold of vaping [products]," Thomas said.

Last month, Californians voted to uphold SB 793, a 2020 law banning the sale of a broad range of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, cigarillos and e-cigarettes.

California is the second state to pass such a law; Massachusetts was the first.

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The American Lung Association hailed the new ban. "This law will protect millions of California youth from lifetime addiction and potential death from tobacco products and will encourage many people who use these products to quit,” said Michael Seilback, the group's national assistant vice president of state public policy.

The Lung Association has a helpline for people who need help with quitting, at 1-800-LUNGUSA.

Protecting youth was one of the motives for a San Diego ban on flavored tobacco. “For decades we've seen the major big tobacco industry hook adolescents and kids by marketing a wide variety of highly addictive, flavored products,” said San Diego city council member Marni Von Wilpert.

She led the effort to pass the city ordinance. It is set to take effect in the new year.

The state law does not apply to hookahs, flavored pipe tobacco or flavored premium cigars. The tobacco industry has said those exemptions favor the rich.

NACS, a trade association for convenience stores, said the menthol market accounts for roughly 34% of cigarette sales, and flavored cigars account for 51% of cigar sales.

Thomas said the state is unfairly targeting flavored tobacco. Without it in his store, he’s going to have to make some tough choices. “You got to do some kind of a budget cut," he told KPBS, "and it's probably going to start with the employees.”

On its website, NACS also says it believes "a ban on these products will push sales to the illicit market."

Retailers who violate the law face a $250 penalty for each violation.