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Chula Vista may ban sale of flavored tobacco products

Chula Vista could become the next city in the county to ban the sale of flavored tobacco. The proposal goes before the city council there tomorrow night but KPBS reporter Alexander Nguyen says the ban’s supporters were at City Hall today.

Chula Vista could become the next city in the county to ban the sale of flavored tobacco when the city council takes on the proposal at its meeting Tuesday evening.

Supporters of the measure rallied in front of City Hall Monday for its passage. They included Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, who said the tobacco companies are targeting children with flavored tobacco products made to look like candies, with flavors such as cotton candy and watermelon.

“You can see (students) walking down the street with those vape things," she said. "Boy, are those flavors lucrative.”

For Salas, the issue is personal. Her 20-year-old granddaughter became addicted to vaping when she was still in high school.

“She told me she had her first puff of flavored tobacco on the grounds of her high school when she was 15 years old," Salas said. "She said, ‘Nana, I smoked that first puff and I loved it.' She loved the feeling of it, the taste of it.” 

That experience is common for middle and high school students. More than one-third of high school students have tried a flavored tobacco product in Chula Vista, according to a study completed last year.

Vaping is in school everywhere, said pediatrician Dr. Vi Nguyen.

“One student told me that during Secret Santa, someone had asked for a vaping thing," she said. "And it was so well hidden that the teacher didn’t even know about it. So they’re Secret Santa gifts, which to me is shocking.”

During the press conference, the coalition called San Diegans vs. Big Tobacco displayed several flavored tobacco products they say were bought by someone under 18. One such example was a flavored tobacco pen that was almost identical to a pack of Starburst candies. Supporters of the ban said this shows tobacco companies are targeting children.

The problem has gotten so bad that administrators at one school in Chula Vista had to take drastic actions, said Adrian Kwiatkowski, coalition manager for San Diego vs. Big Tobacco.

“At Hilltop High School, for example, the school administrators have had to close down the bathrooms and create a regulated way of accessing the bathrooms for high school students," he said. "Because vaping is so prevalent on campus, they actually track everything on a sign-in sheet.”

Marlon Mansour, president of the Neighborhood Market Association, doesn’t think the ban will do much to curb teens from vaping. Instead, he said it will hurt small businesses.

"No viable data has been shown that retailers — small business owners — are the source for these products," Mansour said. "In fact, when underage kids and youths are getting their hands on these products, it's as a result of online sources in black market sources, not your local neighborhood shop."

San Diegans vs. Big Tobacco disputes that.

"About 30% to 40% of our young people are able to buy their products in a local store because the age restrictions are not really strictly enforced," Kwiatkowski said. It's usually the store clerks that are flouting the rules, he added.

The Chula Vista City Council is slated to vote on the issue Tuesday evening. If passed, Chula Vista will join Solana Beach, Encinitas, San Diego, Imperial Beach and the county of San Diego in banning flavored tobacco.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.