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Opinion: Closing Oakland’s Tobacco Store Loophole Will Protect Youth and Support Racial Equity

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Oakland leaders need to act soon to close a loophole in the city’s tobacco retail ordinance.

In 2017, the Oakland City Council adopted an ordinance that restricts the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products to help protect youth and their communities from these dangerous and addictive products. However, the ordinance included an exemption for adult-only tobacco stores. This exemption allowed the amount of adult-only tobacco stores to grow from a handful of stores, when the ordinance first went into effect, to over 55 in less than two years. 

The exemption is exacerbating the existing smoking disparities that the City Council intended to address. The increase in the amount of adult-only tobacco stores is leading to an increase in the amount of flavored tobacco products sold and accessible to youth in their neighborhoods.   

The majority of the adult-only tobacco stores selling these products are located in East and West Oakland’s lower-income neighborhoods meaning the negative impact falls disproportionately on youth in areas that already experience some of the city’s poorest health outcomes. According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, the average life expectancy of African Americans in the flatlands of East Oakland is 14 years less than Whites living in the Oakland hills. 

Why then is an exemption in place that has resulted in the concentration of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, in the same communities that experience high negative health outcomes and aggressive marketing tactics from the tobacco industry?

Last November, The Oakland Post ran two articles highlighting efforts by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) around their campaign against flavored tobacco products and their exhibit on the history of the tobacco industry’s targeting of the African American community to addict them to menthol tobacco products.  AATCLC is a group at the forefront of elevating the regulation of mentholated and other flavored tobacco products and countering tactics used by the tobacco industry in its attempt to attract and addict African American smokers. 

Both articles included details about the marketing tactics the tobacco industry used for decades to attract African Americans. Some of those methods included advertising in widely read African American magazines, funding prominent African American leaders, and co-opting African American culture so successfully that menthol cigarettes became nearly synonymous with smoking for many African American smokers. The tobacco industry continues to use these same tactics locally to hook a new generation of youth of color to cheap flavored tobacco. 

In 2017, Oakland City Council was a leader in passing the Oakland Children Smoking Prevention Ordinance to prevent youth smoking and racial disparities in smoking through access to cheap flavored tobacco products. Now we need them to show their leadership again and change the law by removing the adult-only exemption and follow the lead of nearby cities like Richmond, San Francisco and Berkeley all of which prohibit the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products city-wide, with no exemptions. And we need them to act soon because the number of adult-only retailers keeps growing. Doing this will protect youth and their communities from the tobacco industry, address the inequitable outcomes of Oakland’s current tobacco policy, and institutionalize racial equity in government.

Every year 45,000 African Americans die from a tobacco-related illness in the U.S., which is undoubtedly driven by menthol cigarette use. Oakland leaders can’t save all African Americans in the U.S. from the tobacco industry, but they can take action to save those who live in and around Oakland.  

 

Marlene C. Hurd, B.A.NCC, is president of the Merritt College Tobacco Less Club.

Airion Boatner is East Oakland Youth and Emerging Community Leader of Roots Community Health Center

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