California's Flavored Tobacco Ban Likely Delayed Until 2022

-December 11, 2020

By Charlie Minato - Halfwheel

California’s flavored tobacco ban will likely not to go into effect until at least December 2022.

A campaign to have the new law subject to a repeal via a ballot measure has surpassed the number of signatures needed to get it on the ballot. As such, the law will not go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021 as planned and instead its fate will be decided during the November 2022 general election. The process to verify the validity of the signatures is now under way, though it seems likely that the law will be delayed.

Earlier this year, California passed SB 793, which banned most flavored tobacco products in the state. There were some exceptions, both hookah and loose leaf tobacco—meaning pipe tobacco—were exempt under some conditions. And flavored premium cigars could still be sold, but they needed to have an MSRP of at least $24, which meant that most flavored premium cigars would either be banned or need to have their prices dramatically increased. To qualify, the cigars need to have an MSRP of at least $24 and meet other factors like being handmade and having a whole leaf wrapper.

However, because of California’s direct democracy, bills that are signed into law have a chance to be repealed by the citizens. Big tobacco companies have organized a campaign to repeal the law and as part of the process, the bill won’t go into effect until the voters have their say.

Per the Cigar Association of America, the ballot measure’s timeline is as follows:

  • Aug. 31, 2020 – Proposed referendum filed with Secretary of State.
  • Sept. 10, 2020 – Deadline for Attorney General to prepare ballot title and summary. As soon as title and summary is completed, proponents may begin collecting signatures.
  • Nov. 26, 2020 – Deadline to submit signatures to county elections offices.
  • Dec. 8, 2020 (tentative) – After signatures are submitted, county elections offices have 8 working days to determine if the raw count of signatures meets the required threshold.
  • Dec. 31, 2020 (tentative) – After signatures are submitted, county elections offices have 30 working days to verify the signatures if the raw count threshold was met.
  • Jan. 1, 2021 – SB 793 takes effect on this date if the referendum does not qualify for the ballot.
  • Nov. 8, 2022 – If the SB 793 referendum qualifies, it will be placed on the ballot at the November 2022 General Statewide Election.
  • Dec. 8, 2022 – The General Election vote is certified.  If the referendum succeeds, SB 793 will be repealed on this date.  If the referendum fails, SB 793 will take effect on this date.

As of yesterday, the California Secretary of State had received 1,019,610 signatures, though some counties could remain outstanding. The ballot measure needed 623,212 signatures to go onto the 2022 ballot, which was 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

Tobacco industry submits signatures on California referendum to block ban on flavored products sales

November 24, 2020

By Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO —  A coalition representing the tobacco industry said Tuesday it has turned in more than 1 million signatures as it seeks to qualify a referendum for the November 2022 ballot aimed at overturning a law banning the retail sale of flavored tobacco products in California.

If the Secretary of State’s office determines there is a sufficient number of signatures to qualify the referendum, the new law, which was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, would be suspended until the voters act on the ballot measure in November 2022.

The signatures were submitted to the state by the California Coalition for Fairness, which said in a statement Tuesday that its signature drive showed that voters are put off by the new law.

“In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, raging wildfires, heatwaves and power outages across the state, more than one million Californians signed petitions for the right to have their voice heard on an unfair law that benefits the wealthy and special interests while costing jobs and cutting funding for education and healthcare,” the statement said.

The coalition has received more than $21 million so far, largely from companies including Philip Morris USA and its affiliated U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., as well as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Opponents needed to collect the signatures of 623,312 registered voters to quality the referendum.

The referendum was criticized Tuesday by Lindsey Freitas, advocacy director for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a leading supporter of the new law.

“We know Big Tobacco has hidden behind smoke and lies for years to hook generations of young people on deadly tobacco products, and this referendum is just one more tactic to continue the status quo,” Freitas said. “If this referendum qualifies for the ballot, we’re confident that California voters will reject Big Tobacco’s desperate attempt to keep hooking our kids for a profit. But the delay will be costly and deadly.”

Supporters of the flavored tobacco sales ban accused signature gatherers of misleading voters by telling them the petitions were for a measure to ban sales of flavored tobacco products to minors, a charge the coalition denied.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed the new law in August, denounced the referendum effort when it launched.

“This is Big Tobacco’s latest attempt to profit at the expense of our kids’ health,” Newsom said at the time“California will continue to fight back and protect children from Big Tobacco.”

The law Newsom signed would ban the retail sale of flavored tobacco products including menthol and fruit flavors, as well as those used in electronic cigarettes. To win legislative approval, the bill exempted hookah, expensive cigars and flavored pipe tobacco. It also does not apply to Internet sales of flavored products

Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who introduced the bill, said flavored tobacco is used by the industry to attract minors to smoking and vaping.

He cited a 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that 67% of high school students and 49% of middle school students who used tobacco products in the prior 30 days reported using a flavored tobacco product during that time.

The high cost of qualifying the referendum and delaying the law for nearly two years would be eclipsed by the profits the industry would make selling flavored tobacco products in the meantime, supporters of the ban say. They estimate sales of menthol products alone will bring the industry $1.1 billion in revenue during the 22 months that California’s law would be delayed.

The campaign over the referendum is likely to generate heated debate, following vitriol between the two sides leading up to the Legislature’s approval of the law.

The tobacco industry ran television ads before the Legislature’s vote that alleged by exempting hookah, expensive cigars and flavored pipe tobacco from the ban, legislators gave “special treatment to the rich, and [singled] out communities of color” by banning menthol cigarettes.

Black lawmakers called the ads offensive and argued that the tobacco industry has targeted Black and Latino residents with marketing of flavored tobacco products, causing disproportionate harm to their health.

The coalition of tobacco companies repeated their charge on Tuesday.

“SB 793 criminalizes the sale of menthol cigarettes preferred by people of color and creates special exemptions for products preferred by the wealthy — allowing the sale of expensive flavored cigars and pipe tobacco, in addition to hookah, to remain legal,” the group said in its statement.

In pursuing the referendum, the coalition said it agrees “that youth should never have access to any tobacco products, but this can be achieved without imposing a total prohibition on products that millions of adults choose to use.”

The referendum is one of two prongs of the tobacco industry’s attack on the new law. The companies also filed a federal lawsuit against the state, seeking an injunction to block the new law, arguing it is “an overbroad reaction to legitimate public-health concerns about youth use of tobacco products.”

A court hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 10.

At least 22 dead in Central America after Hurricane Iota as rescue crews work through flooding and debris

Click here to find out how you can help those impacted by Hurricane Iota. 

November 18, 2020

By Jimena Tavel, Jacqueline Charles and Syra Ortiz-Blanes, Miami Herald

Hurricane Iota’s death toll in the Central America region on Wednesday rose to 22, including two children, as survivors and rescuers continue to wade through murky waters and catastrophic debris.

Five people died in Honduras and six in Nicaragua, Gonzalo Atxaerandio, the Central America disaster and crisis coordinator for the Red Cross who is organizing relief efforts in Honduras, told the Miami Herald.

Dr. Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies for the Pan American Health Organization, said Nicaragua reported at least 10 other deaths. Four of those people died in a huge landslide.

Colombian President Ivan Duque had said on Tuesday that the Category 4 storm killed one person when it barreled through the Colombian archipelago of San Andres and Providencia, about 230 miles off of the northeastern Nicaraguan coast.

These fatalities will be added to the ones left behind by Eta, the other major hurricane that slammed into the area earlier this month. PAHO reported 150 people had died from Eta in Central America as of Monday night, before Iota made landfall in Nicaragua.

The organization estimates at least 6.5 million people in Central America have been affected in some way by Iota and Eta, which has sparked a massive humanitarian disaster. Ugarte warned the numbers could keep on mounting.

“There have been persons who have disappeared and right now multi-institutional teams are dealing with that crisis,” Ugarte said during PAHO’s weekly press update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the Americas.

Although the conditions are extremely difficult, particularly in shelters, Ugarte said “it is necessary to guarantee access to water, food, shelter of course.” PAHO, he said, is currently working with government officials and the United Nations to ensure that those needs are met. “Right now, there are very serious difficulties in accessing certain areas and the damage assessment will take place in the next few hours, perhaps even days.”

He said PAHO has sent Nicaragua personal protective equipment and other materials needed to deal with COVID patients. It will soon provide technical support and mobilize resources to guarantee essential health services to that country and others as well.

PAHO is also keeping a close eye on any increase in COVID-19 cases, Ugarte said, which can take some time to show due to the incubation period. “That has not yet been detected right now, but it’s highly likely it will increase over the next few weeks because it always takes some time from transmission for the cases to appear.”

Atxaerandio, with the Red Cross in Honduras, said Nicaragua and Honduras were the hardest hit by Iota among the seven countries in Central America. In Nicaragua, the destruction is centered in the northeastern coast, while in Honduras it encompasses the entire country.

Atxaerandio said he’s most worried about dams that are at near full capacity in Honduras, even as heavy rainfall continues in some areas.

Because shelters are over capacity in Honduras, so many people who became homeless after Eta weathered Iota in makeshift tents and tarps on the streets, he said.

“We’re very worried,” he said. “Obviously we’re trying to help them first, because their vulnerability is higher, but it’s difficult.”

Atxaerandio said he hopes the international community sends in more help soon, because “considering the tragedy we’re seeing, we don’t consider what we’re getting enough.”

Reynaldo Francis Watson, the former regional governor of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region and ex-mayor of the indigenous city of Puerto Cabezas, said he visited four hurricane shelters across the port city on Wednesday.

Watson estimated that about 5,000 to 6,000 people, a mix of people of all ages and genders from the city and from surrounding indigenous communities, had evacuated to Puerto Cabezas. Many refugees, he said, were still in a state of shock.

“People are not doing well, they are disoriented, worried, then they start laughing, then stop,” Watson said.

Two of the shelters he visited had serious damage to the roofs and infrastructure. There was no power. Rainwater leaks through the cracks and holes as gusts of wind chill the insides.

“People need water, food, mattresses, blankets, clothes. Some of them left their communities quickly and left everything because it was an emergency,” Watson said, adding some elderly do not have the medicines or adult diapers they need.

There is no social distancing or protective gear to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus. Five to six families are crammed in university classrooms that only fit 30 students.

In particular, Watson said, the neighborhoods in Puerto Cabeza closest to the docks and the beaches were most vulnerable to the storm’s power: He saw collapsed houses, century-old fallen trees, and people scouring the streets for essentials.

“People are looking everywhere for nails, looking for little things like that, some looking for food,” he said.

He criticized some local businesses for price gouging in a time of need, particularly for building supplies.

“They are taking advantage of the need of the crisis,” Watson said. “A yard of plastics that cost 30 córdobas is now selling at 85 (córdobas.) Almost three dollars a yard that previously cost less than a dollar.”

The damage in the indigenous communities south of the city, where both Eta and Iota made landfall, he said, is “very bad.”

The communities of Haulover and Wauhta ended up “at the bottom of a lagoon.” In the Miskito Cays, a low-lying archipelago where people live from fishing, Watson painted a picture of complete devastation.

“There were more than 300 or 400 little houses where people came to work. Everything went to the sea,” he said.

Watson was regional governor when Hurricane Félix struck the region in 2007. He believes that experiencing the massive storm 13 years ago helped residents of the indigenous region prepare better for Eta and Iota. Some people evacuated on their own and hunkered down with family in advance of the storm.

Still, he added, the losses from the back-to-back major hurricanes are larger than those of the 2007 storm, and he worries Puerto Cabezas and the communities nearby won’t receive the help they need as quickly as they should because the damage is so widespread.

“I don’t really know how the issue is going, but I see it as very difficult that the government has the capacity to attend to” the crisis he said.


©2020 Miami Herald

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Powerful Hurricane Eta Approaches Central America

November 3, 2020

By David Savona , Gregory Mottola

Hurricane Eta was crawling across the Atlantic Ocean towards Nicaragua on Tuesday morning with sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. The Category 4 storm was expected to make landfall on northeastern Nicaragua today, and then was forecast to slowly drag across Central America all week.

The latest track from the National Hurricane Service, issued at 10 am, predicted the storm would only emerge from Central America on Friday evening or early Saturday morning. Of great concern is its slow speed—it was moving at only five miles per hour—and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall. The Weather Channel was predicting 15 to 25 inches of rain in Honduras and Nicaragua, with higher amounts possible in some areas.

Nicaragua and Honduras are both prominent cigar-producing countries. Nicaragua is the leading exporter of premium cigars to the United States, the country where PadrónOlivaAJ Fernandez and many other cigars are made by hand. Honduras is the No. 3 exporter, the home of such brands as CamachoAlec BradleyPunch and many other cigars. Rocky Patel is a brand rolled in both countries.

Nicaragua is also a major producer of cigar tobacco. The farms and large leaf plantations across regions such as Estelí, Jalapa and Condega are right in Eta’s path. Currently, planting season in Nicaragua is still in its early stages, with seedlings in greenhouses and some already in the fields. A hurricane of this magnitude could wipe out the season’s first series of crops.

“The planting season [in Nicaragua] has just started, so the damage from the hurricane will be minimal compared to the total planting area,” said Nestor Andrés Plasencia, who grows tobacco and manufactures cigars in both Honduras and Nicaragua. “We made the decision to stop planting the seedlings [in Nicaragua] in the field this week.”

In Honduras, where the season is further along, Plasencia is taking steps to increase water drainage in the tobacco fields. As for harvested tobacco already hanging in the curing barns, he’s heating his barns to remove any excess moisture. “We are also praying for the security of our people which is the most important thing right now,” Plasencia added.