Retailers across the country are struggling mightily to keep their doors open, employees working and sales flowing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A record number of chains have been forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy or shutter their brands altogether. These aren’t some mom-and-pop outfits either. These brands include some of the most venerable and iconic retail banners in the country including Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, GNC and Brooks Brothers. And when these doors close for good, all the jobs they provided and the tax revenue they generated for municipalities go with them.
So it just makes it more curious how California lawmakers — following Massachusetts’ lead —could be so clueless and callous as to gleefully hammer nails into the coffin of the state’s already struggling convenience store industry.
For the past six months, convenience stores have fought to keep doors open, employees safe and still provide every customer with what they need to get through this unprecedented pandemic. Fuel sales have been down, in-store sales have lagged and foodservice sales have slowed.
Yet, in the midst of this crisis and the growing concern retailers are facing over how to pay the bills and keep employees on the payroll, Gov. Gavin Newsom, D- Calif., decided the real problem in his state was tobacco and signed a sweeping bill into law that bans the sale of flavored tobacco products beginning Jan. 1. At a press conference Aug. 28, Newsom and the California Senate took a victory lap deriding retailers and tobacco companies. It was a circus and completely unnecessary.
The myopic legislation includes bans on menthol cigarettes, flavored tobacco and flavored e-cigarettes. For now, premium cigars, pipe tobacco and hookah products have been exempted, but they move forward with a large target on their backs as power-hungry zealots disregard a common-sense approach to tobacco regulations in favor of totalitarian tactics.
What are they doing? Who wins here? Let’s set aside politics and the basic rights of adults to pick and choose how they live their lives for a moment, and focus first and foremost on how the loss of these sales could be a death blow to many convenience stores, where tobacco accounts for as much as 33% of in-store sales. When those sales go away so do jobs and tax revenue. What’s more, this legislation won’t really lead to anyone actually quitting smoking. It’s simply going to change where they buy their products. In other words, it will push sales to the black market, neighboring states and online. There is a nearly 30-year track record that shows this will be the case.
Find a Better Way
But now that legislators got their way, what’s next? Alcohol? Sugar? Sodium? Red meat? I can make a case that each of these items not used in moderation can be extremely harmful. When did the people so willingly give away their right to choose? Democratic lawmakers in California are the first to champion “My body, my choice,” when it comes to certain issues. OK, I’m on board with that. Yet, when it comes to tobacco, the “my body, my choice” argument is discarded like yesterday’s bread.
The outrageous myth that persists is that tobacco companies and retailers are targeting minors. It’s a tired story, and it’s simply not true. Tobacco companies and convenience store retailers are monitored and tracked. They have added training, been subjected to countless sting operations, and have literally spent billions (with a b) dating back to the 1996 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) funding programs to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors.
There simply has got to be a better way than to punish responsible adults who enjoy a menthol cigarette for the behavior of minors who ignore and disregard the law. Here’s one way: How about punishing the minors who are caught with cigarettes?
Why have virtually no laws been introduced to hold minors caught vaping or in possession of cigarettes accountable? Seems to me that if you want to stop minors from smoking, there would be at least ONE consequence for their actions. But no, when minors are caught with a cigarette, lawmakers leap onto their soapbox to blame retailers and tobacco companies. Really? Is it possible, perhaps, that some of the blame lies with the minor? Instead, they walk away with impunity.
When a 17-year-old is caught speeding or drag racing, they lose their license and receive expensive tickets, and you know what? That kid isn’t going to be speeding again anytime soon. Yet I haven’t heard a single lawmaker anywhere introduce a bill to ban Ford and Chevy. And why? Because it’s ridiculous, just as it is for not punishing minors who break tobacco laws. Even as I write this, I’m growing concerned that I’m giving California some ideas about car bans.
Don’t even get me started on the age issue. We used to be adults at 18. Now it’s 21. I joined the military at 17 in 1987. I smoked back then. By the time I was 20, I had fought in a war, served three years on a submarine and took tremendous pride in defending my country. That was a lifetime ago, in a different era, in a different world. Back then, things like patriotism and honor and values still meant something pure. Today, they have negative connotations, and I simply don’t understand why.
But as a service member, if I wanted to smoke, I was going to smoke. My body, my choice. Just like I choose to protect my country when it needed it most. There are thousands of young men and women in the military right now of all colors, religions and backgrounds answering the nation’s call, giving everything they have to prepare and train to defend America.
Every one of them will die if they have to in order to protect our way of life. There is no draft, so every one of them volunteered for this service to their county because they care about our future, our way of life and share the same values I shared for my country in 1987. Many are stationed in California and sadly, some of them will be killed overseas. We accept this. The first rule of war is outstanding men and women will die. We can put these young adults in harm’s way without so much as blinking an eye, but God forbid a 19-year-old adult wants to relax at night and puff on a cherry vape. Give me a break. The priorities are wrong. The approach is all wrong.
Common sense legislation is needed by lawmakers that are committed to common sense and not self-interest. No one is trying to deny that there are risks associated with smoking. We all know the risks. But lawmakers need to understand that the impact of these unilateral decisions will hurt local economies, put people out of work, force businesses to close and create a black market that they will not be able to control or legislate. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
I shudder at the thought of what legislation they will consider then.
To respond or comment, please email John Lofstock at [email protected].