As part of a larger anti-tobacco movement within Sonoma County, the Windsor Town Council is considering an update to an ordinance controlling the sale of tobacco products which could help decrease use by minors, though some say it will hurt small business owners.
The ordinance update, introduced in a first reading at the regular town council meeting on July 21, would increase restrictions on which types of tobacco products, in what quantity and at what price are legal to sell by licensed retailers in Windsor. However, after hearing from the business community, council members voted unanimously to continue the first reading so staff has a chance to amend certain aspects of the ordinance update following public complaints from business owners.
According to the staff report, Windsor has been regulating the sale of tobacco within town limits since the ordinance in question — ”Regulating the Sale of Tobacco Products and Paraphernalia” — was adopted in 2008. Through a 2018 update to that ordinance, the town began requiring tobacco retail licenses (TRL), limiting the number of retailers legally allowed to purvey tobacco products.
These measures are seen by community health experts and anti-tobacco activists as effective in ending juvenile use of tobacco products.
“Rising youth tobacco usage, especially with electronic smoking devices (vaping), has encouraged municipalities to pass more restrictions banning certain types of tobacco and tobacco products,” said Tim Ricard, Economic Development Manager, who gave the presentation on the ordinance.
Ricard said that the cities of Healdsburg, Sonoma and Sebastopol, along with unincorporated Sonoma County, have also adopted tobacco retail licenses, with Windsor’s being modeled after Sebastopol.
Windsor currently has 14 such purveyors within town limits, many of whom are convenience store owners heavily reliant on tobacco sales. The ordinance as it stands prevents tobacco retailers from selling tobacco in small quantities and establishes a minimum price of $7 for cigarettes, chewing tobacco and little cigars.
The $350 licenses must be renewed annually, and the town partners with the Sonoma County Health Department, which conducts three annual compliance visits at each tobacco purveyor, in addition to some random visits. No Windsor store has ever been found to be in violation of the TRL ordinance.
The ordinance update would further restrict how tobacco could be sold in the town, with the minimum price raised per pack raised to $10, a complete ban on flavored tobacco products including e-juice and menthol cigarettes and banning all promotion strategies, including coupons and discounts. Licensed tobacco purveyors in town would be limited to one per 2000 residents, with new retailers not permitted within 1,000 feet of a school or park.
Several members of the business community spoke in person at the podium during public comment, arguing that the new ordinance would hurt their businesses, which are already suffering under these restrictions.
Convenience store owners said that they were subject to frequent racial disparagement when forced to refuse sale to would-be customers who did not want to buy tobacco in a large quantity or who did not want to pay the price minimum. They also said that the inability to transfer the license disallows parents to leave their businesses to their children, or else hurts the ability to sell the business, decreasing its value.
“As retailers we’ve complied with a lot of restrictions. Although these ideas sound euphonious in nature, the opposition fails to see how detrimental this is to small businesses. The business owners here — we’re all immigrants, we’re all trying to chase the American dream. The only fault for us is that we decided to do our business in the Town of Windsor,” one business owner said.
Outside of business owners, public commenters, the majority of whom spoke via Zoom, were overwhelmingly in favor of the ordinance update, particularly the ban on menthol tobacco products. Proponents including local high school students and local anti-smoking activists, only some of whom live in Windsor, said the ban would help unite local communities in uniform enforcement measures, and prevent local youth from crossing city lines to avoid local bans.
Mary Lou Schmidt, a retired nurse and member of the Gravenstein Health Action Coalition, which helped get a similar ordinance passed in Sebastopol, said, “Having ordinances in all the towns and cities and unincorporated areas in Sonoma County will help narrow the availability of all these nicotine products. Striving for consistency in our local tobacco control will provide uniform enforcement as well as prevent youth from visiting neighboring communities with less stringent rules on their nicotine products.”
Arguments were based on the need to address tobacco addiction as an epidemic, and to counter profit-seeking tobacco corporations, which many allegedly target the LGBT community and communities of color disproportionately.
Council members were ultimately in agreement with the need for the ordinance, but expressed support for amending certain aspects of the ordinance to appease business owners. They voted to continue the item so that issues of transferability and providing signage to inform the public that businesses are complying with local laws. But ultimately, the council was in favor of the majority of the ordinance.
“Unfortunately the burden does fall on a small group of business owners, and I’m sorry about that. But this health priority is just too big, and we have to start somewhere,” Councilmember Esther Lemus said.