Statewide Flavored Tobacco Ban Stalled by Industry Supported Referendum

While Culver City’s municipal ban on the sales of flavored tobacco went into effect in May of 2020, a similar law passed by the state that would have gone into effect this year is on hold, owing to a referendum supported by the tobacco industry.  

On August 28, 2020, California passed a broad law prohibiting the sale of most flavored tobacco products. The law, known by its bill number SB-793, was similar to Culver City’s ordinance, and had been put forward out of the same concerns.  Three days later, on August 31, a proposed referendum was submitted to the Attorney General of California.

For the verification process, once counties submit enough verified signatures to meet the 110 percent signature threshold for the random sample (685,534 signatures), the Secretary of State stops the count for other counties and moves forward with certifying the referendum.

If counties use their full time to complete the verification, this would run past the effective date for the law of January 1, 2021. The four referendum petitioners, though, have agreed to a joint stipulation with the California Attorney General and Secretary of State that SB-793 will not take effect on January 1 because the submission of over 100 percent of the required signatures has suspended the effective date, and that SB-793 will remain ineffective and unenforceable until either the referendum fails to qualify, or if it qualifies until the vote in the 2022 election.

This stipulation was approved in California court on December 10, 2020.

With this referendum looking like it qualifies for the ballot, SB-793 will be suspended until the referendum vote in the 2022 general election. 

Los Angeles County also banned the sales of flavored tobacco in October of 2019.

According to the Public Health Law Center, the disclosed top funders of the referendum effort – required to disclose by state law – are tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, and ITG Brands.

While the statewide ban on flavored tobacco may be inevitable, those who profit from nicotine addictions will run the clock as long as possible. 

Using the legal tactic of the referendum to delay or defeat a law that business interests oppose has become an increasingly common strategy in California.

In 2014, the plastics industry spent millions pushing a referendum opposing a ban on single-use plastic bags. The state law was approved by the voters in a 53% to 47% vote in the 2016 election, but implementation was delayed for two years while waiting for the vote. 

Culver City had already passed its own municipal plastic bag ban in June of 2013.

While the new city council will begin meeting next Monday, January 11, 2020, some council members may already be crafting some forward thinking laws that the state can use as an example, with or without referendum challenges.  


Judith Martin-Straw


The Actors' Gang

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