Menthol e-cigarette
A menthol-flavored electronic cigarette. Berkeley City Council is taking steps to prevent youth being exposed to menthol and flavored cigarettes, and is looking into e-cigarettes. Photo: Lindsay Fox

The Berkeley City Council has taken steps to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools, including menthol cigarettes, popular as a sweet-smoke with a slight tingle; flavored roll-your-own tobacco, which comes in such tastes as mint, black cherry and vanilla; and cigars.

Berkeley’s menthol move came the week before the launch of major statewide public health campaign on the marketing and availability of tobacco products and junk food.

“The tobacco industry continues to find cheap, new ways to entice our youth. Flavored products that appeal to youth are often marketed just a few blocks from schools,” said Dr. Janet Berreman, director of Berkeley’s public health division. 

The council at its Feb. 27 meeting unanimously directed city staff to flesh out details in a tobacco regulation, which will come back to the council for consideration. In doing so, Berkeley is following in the footsteps of Chicago, which adopted a similar school ban last year.

Menthol, a chemical compound that occurs naturally in some mint plants and is also synthetically produced, curbs some of strong flavor tobacco, and leaves a slight clean feeling in the mouth, smokers say. Its safety is debated.

Under the 2009 Family Smoking and Tobacco Prevention Act, the FDA banned flavorful additives to traditional cigarettes, but didn’t include menthol, or address other tobacco products.

The agency is now, however, considering menthol regulation.

“While this landmark law made some very important steps to discourage tobacco use among young smokers, menthol tobacco products still remain on the market and have the same function of masking the harshness of tobacco, providing a cool sensation that makes it appealing to teenage smokers,” said Councilman Darryl Moore in a report to the council. Moore proposed the ban with Councilman Max Anderson.

“The appeal of menthol flavored tobacco products is evidenced by the fact that it holds approximately 30% of the total market share,” Moore said.

Opponents to an FDA ban of menthol include retail groups, and some law enforcement and community organizations that claim banning the additive will spur an underground market that could lead to violent crimes.

Meanwhile, at the request of the City Council, the city’s health commission, an advisory body, is studying the regulation of e-cigarettes, the increasingly popular battery-operated vapor devices, which come in youth-tantalizing flavors such as “sour apple,” “chocolate bliss” and “cherry love.” Most contain nicotine.

A new study shows that of the Berkeley stores that sell the most popular brand of cigarillos, 90% sell them for under $1. Photo: Pierre Bernard

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of U.S. high school and middle school kids who have tried e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012 nationwide, from 4.7% to 10%.

UC Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District both regulate e-cigarettes the same as traditional smokes.

The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t yet weighed in on e-cigarettes, but, as with menthol, such regulation is in the works. But many cities have. Los Angeles this week joined Chicago, Boston and New York to regulate the vapor machines. San Francisco is considering the same.

The health commission will make a recommendation to the city.

Meanwhile a  statewide public health campaign on the marketing and availability of tobacco products and junk food was released this week. Dozens of health agencies and organizations, including Berkeley’s health division, released sweeping data on the numbers, kinds, and locations of stores displaying and selling a range of tobacco products including e-cigarettes.

“New data reveals that the City of Berkeley has more than double the rate of stores selling tobacco near schools compared to the state,” said a city press release on the campaign.

On e-cigarettes, the data found that “more than 57% of Berkeley stores surveyed sell e-cigarettes. Statewide, the number of stores selling e-cigarettes quadrupled in the last two years, from 11.5% in 2011 to 45.7% in 2013.”

“Their popularity and prevalence could undermine the great work we’ve done on tobacco use in Berkeley,” said Berreman.

Additional Berkeley survey findings include:

  • Of the stores that sell the most popular brand of cigarillos, 90% sell them for under $1.
  • Over 86% of stores selling tobacco located near schools sell non-cigarette tobacco products in kid-enticing flavors such as candy, mint, and licorice.
  • 53% of stores have “unhealthy” exterior advertising while only 17% have “healthy” exterior advertising.
  • 36% of stores are selling good-quality fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Alcohol ads are being placed with candy and toys or below three feet at nearly 70% of stores.

See the full Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community report.

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Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...