It’s been two years since the Pleasanton City Council passed a retail ordinance restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products and established a tobacco retailer license, part of a public campaign to discourage youths from using vaping devices.
But the questions remained: Did the tobacco retail ordinance, which went into effect Jan. 12, 2021, work and has the ban decreased the number of teens vaping?
The short answer, yes — according to advocates and city officials.
“I’ve noticed that vaping is not as big of an issue at my school anymore as it was pre-covid,” said Simran Pandey, Amador Valley High School senior and vice president of the Student Inter-schools Action Council.
“Freshman year I would hear stories about vapes being left behind in the bathrooms, and sometimes you can even smell the smoke,” Pandey added. “But now it is a very rare occurrence at my school to encounter someone with a vape as people are more aware and conscious of the detrimental effects of these products.”
Pandey was one of the speakers at the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition for Health Against Tobacco’s two-year anniversary event of the ordinance’s passage on Thursday. The event was held at Foothill High School and featured Pleasanton city leaders such as Mayor Karla Brown and police Lt. Erik Silacci, who gave updates on the effects the ordinance passing had on the city.
“I’ve seen a dramatic reduction, personally, in the use around town,” Brown said. “I used to see people in the streets, I used to see people in cars and … even within our own schools.”
It was that increasing number of high school students vaping that initially got parents and student organizations interested in backing the tobacco ordinance in the first place back in 2020.
The campaign was part of a larger movement as Pleasanton joined more than 150 other cities in banning flavored tobacco sales and the establishment of new tobacco retailers within 1,000 feet of a public school, park or recreation center.
Rosalyn Moya, project director for the coalition, told the Weekly that before the ordinance was passed she had several parents coming to her not knowing how to keep their kids away from vaping.
“A lot of them feel powerless, like, ‘I want to do something, I see my kids or I see my friends, kids being addicted to these and I don’t know what to do,'” Moya said.
She said that while her organization primarily focuses on educating youth about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine products, it was important to get the ordinance passed so the city has a structured way of preventing kids from buying the products and keeping stores from selling to minors.
“It really needed to make sure that a system was there… to make sure that the owners are responsible, that they trained their staff and make sure that they tell their staff to check ID every time,” Moya said.
Owen Wise-Pierik, a community engagement coordinator with the same coalition as Moya, said that the ordinance was also a way for parents to feel like they had a voice in fighting back against the multimillion tobacco industry.
“This is about regular people against an industry, and I think that the tobacco industry has been targeting vulnerable people since they became an industry,” Wise-Pierik said. “They’re creating their products specifically to market to children because they know that it’s a business strategy. They know that if they can get kids hooked on tobacco, they’ll have lifelong customers.”
One of the ways the city is now enforcing that ordinance is by Pleasanton police setting up sting operations on stores periodically.
“The last one that we did… was September of 2021,” Silacci said. “Of all the retail license operations that we visited and did a tobacco buy operation on — one in five sold to a minor. So that’s 1% sales rate, which we feel is still way too high.”
Silacci said that because the first year of the ordinance being passed was focused on education, any store that is now found violating the ordinance could have their tobacco license revoked or suspended.
He added that while there was initial pushback by store owners who sell these products, the city hasn’t seen much of a decline in tobacco licenses or has seen any stores shutting down.
“When we started there were 45 tobacco retailers in the city of Pleasanton,” Brown said. “Now there’s 40, and we charge a small fee and that fee is used to go back to reinforcement.”
Brown said that apart from making the products more difficult for students to purchase, she has also been talking to the district on how it is using monitoring devices to reduce the number of kids vaping inside the school bathrooms.
“Make it hard to buy them, make it hard to own them, and make it aware of how unhealthy these are has been a dramatic change and improvement within the city of Pleasanton,” Brown said.
But with vapes and other tobacco products out of the picture for the most part, the effects on students’ mental health still remains.
Ashley Sprader, a behavior analyst and student services coordinator with the district, said that the pandemic left students with leftover trauma, which led many students to turn to vaping as a way of coping.
“Often we’re seeing the underlying issues of anxiety or depression, and then students using (vapes) to mask some of those things,” she said.
Sprader said that while the ordinance helped with restricting access to vapes, it’s equally important to continue educating students on why these products are dangerous.
“What we are trying to do is re-educate our students, because the last thing they want to do is catch a student, send them home, and they just do more,” she said. “So our goal is to educate our students on the why. Why is it harmful to your body and what can we do to prevent using and really find out what it is that the underlying reason of why they’re using.”