The city of Livermore has taken aim at teen vaping -- and might well find itself squaring off against the e-cigarette industry as a result.
Nearly 100 people of all ages gathered downtown on Tuesday morning in support of the new city ordinance set to take effect next week that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco in Livermore, as well as severely restrict businesses from selling electronic smoking paraphernalia and establish a city tobacco retailer license program for the first time.
But as the rally was getting underway, news filtered through the group that Bay Area vapor product company JUUL Labs could be on its way to submitting a referendum petition with enough signatures to force the City Council to back off its ban or put the issue on a citywide ballot.
"We want healthy kids. We don't want kids addicted to nicotine," Jannell Gladen, co-founder of Flavors Addict Kids-Livermore, said in remarks to open the rally at Flagpole Plaza.
"Now big tobacco has come into Livermore, and unfortunately I've just heard they collected enough signatures," Gladen told the group. "We won't stand for it. The parents won't stand for it. The community won't stand for it."
A spokesperson from San Francisco-based JUUL confirmed to the Weekly that they have surpassed the threshold of 5,269 signatures needed to qualify for a referendum and they plan to continue obtaining more signatures on their petition while exploring other options to counteract what they see as an ill-conceived and unpopular policy.
"The full prohibition of vapor products is widely opposed by San Francisco voters, San Francisco opinion leaders, and public health experts across the country and world. Despite that, the city of Livermore has rushed a similar ban into law with minimal public input or consideration," the JUUL statement read.
"We are exploring all options, including a potential referendum to give the voters a say on this critical matter of public health, because there are ways to fight youth access of vapor products while recognizing that adult smokers should have access to alternatives, since cigarettes still kill 40,000 Californians every year," the statement added.
The referendum petition had not been filed with the city as of Tuesday afternoon. The proponents would have until Aug. 8 -- the day that the new ban would go into effect -- to submit their petition. Signature verification by Alameda County election officials would follow, to ensure the names were of registered Livermore voters, before the council's hand would be forced.
With parent and education leaders among those demanding action to confront teen vaping in Livermore, council members held a lengthy public debate on proposed new tobacco regulations on June 24 and confirmed their support with a second reading and final adoption on July 8.
The new ordinance outright bans the sale of all flavored tobacco within the city limits, as well as creates a new prohibition of the sale of all tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a "youth-populated area."
Additionally, the new regulations include a ban on the sale of all electronic smoking devices (unless it is a new product approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) as well as prohibits selling electronic smoking/vaping fluids that are flavored (FDA-approved fluids could be sold only if non-flavored).
The ordinance also establishes a new tobacco retailer license program in the city to be overseen by the Livermore Police Department.
The city reports having 71 tobacco retailers currently operating, mainly grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations. The council confirmed the license fee prices during its meeting Monday night: $1,005 for new licenses; $969 for a license renewal.
Standard ordinances are written to take effect 30 days after the council adoption while allowing critics that lag time to pursue a referendum petition if desired.
And Livermore residents have been encountering signature-collectors around town in the days after the council adoption, with the Aug. 8 referendum deadline looming.
In a show of force for the city ordinance they helped inspire, local residents and community leaders gathered at Flagpole Plaza at South Livermore Avenue and First Street in downtown to generate more public support for their cause.
Rally-goers held signs like "Nicotine hooks Livermore kids" and "Stop Big Tobacco. Stop JUUL" as well as poster boards highlighting candy-like vaping flavors that often stock shelves.
Other speakers included the Livermore Indivisible citizen group, local students and Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District officials, including the principals of all three high schools.
"Vaping is like candy. Vaping will kill us at an early age, just like smoking," Granada High School student Regina Molitoris said. "We're here to urge you to help keep the ordinance alive, so we as teenagers and you will not get addicted to vaping and smoking by the 'Big Tobacco' companies."
Of the flavored tobacco industry, LVJUSD school board president Craig Bueno added, "It is fundamentally wrong. As a community, we're doing the right thing. This is Livermore. We're smart. Let's continue to do the right thing. Say no to it. Keep fighting it."
Pleasanton is among the Bay Area communities keeping a close eye on what happens with the Livermore referendum. The Pleasanton Youth Commission has listed vaping prevention as a priority for the year and commissioners are working with city staff on potential regulation recommendations to the City Council while city officials continue to track the aftermath of the ordinance in Livermore.