The Livermore City Council on Monday reluctantly certified the validity of a petition seeking to repeal the city's attempted prohibition on the sale of flavored tobacco and agreed to put the issue to a citywide vote on a special ballot during the upcoming primary election.
Set for March 3, the special election will ask voters if they want to accept the ordinance adopted by the council during the summer to ban the sale of flavored tobacco within the city limits -- or if they oppose the city's effort, in support of the referendum petition backed by Bay Area-based vapor product company JUUL Labs.
"The only people that I have heard from that are in favor of the referendum are the people who are profiting off of the addiction of other people," Mayor John Marchand reflected during the council meeting. "And as many of you have elegantly said, 'Do we put profit over the health of our children?'"
With an eye on better preventing youth access to vaping products, the council on July 8 adopted an ordinance to ban the sale of flavored tobacco, prohibit the sale of all tobacco products within 1,000 feet of "youth-populated areas," add new restrictions for businesses selling vaping paraphernalia and establish the city's first-ever tobacco retailer license program.
But before taking effect, the ordinance was subject to a 30-day window to be challenged by a referendum petition -- which JUUL pursued. Alameda County election officials confirmed the petition cleared the 5,269-signature threshold needed to force the council's hand: either repeal the ordinance or put the issue on the ballot.
"I am deeply unhappy that we need to certify this given the deceitful way in which signatures were collected," Councilwoman Trish Munro said during Monday's public hearing.
She called into question the integrity of the petition. Speaking from her own experience, Munro said a referendum petitioner approached her while at the store and lied about the purpose of the petition, claiming it was to prevent underage minors from buying vapor products in vending machines.
"The process for bringing citizens' concerns to the ballot through initiatives or referendums was designed to give power to the people. That's a good intention that's been badly twisted and perverted," she lamented. "With enough money any initiative or referendum will qualify for the ballot ... This referendum was bought and paid for by money earned by dealing death."
Munro said that while lying to gather signatures is a felony, there is little that can be done to enforce the law nor would it invalidate the petition.
Representatives from JUUL spoke during Monday's public comment section and argued that vaping products offer a "tremendous public health opportunity" for people who wanted to quit smoking.
"The company's mission is clear; it is to improve the lives of the world's 1 billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes, and the use of combustible cigarettes is still the leading preventable cause of death in the United States," said Jon Berrier, senior director of public affairs at JUUL.
He added that while company leaders are in favor of regulating their product to help keep it out of the hands of underage minors, prohibition is a step too far for adults looking to make their own choices.
"Let's be clear: No non-nicotine user, and certainly no one underage, should ever use vapor products," Berrier added. "It is incumbent on the company to drive aggressive smart and effective regulation to prevent youth access, appeal and ultimately use of vapor products."
Dozens of Livermore residents, including high school and middle school students, spoke in opposition to the referendum, stating that the ordinance offers the most effective way to protect teens from the epidemic of vaping that can be found in local schools.
Speakers expressed fears that the flavored vapor pods are specifically targeted at children as a way to inflict them with a life-long addiction early on. They were also doubtful of Berrier's claim that vaping is a healthy alternative to cigarettes.
In addition to individual residents, representatives from health advocacy groups like the American Heart Association and Breathe California, as well as Livermore's homegrown advocacy groups Flavors Addict Kids-Livermore and Livermore Indivisible spoke in support of the ordinance.
"The fact that big tobacco came into Livermore and put our ordinance on hold with a referendum tells us we're doing the right thing," Kristie Wang, co-founder, Flavors Addict Kids-Livermore, said in a statement after the meeting.
"We believe in this ordinance and want the opportunity to go to the ballot box to show that the citizens of Livermore, when faced with the choice between protecting the health of our children and protecting the profits of big tobacco, we will always choose our kids," she added.
The council voted unanimously at the end of the public discussion to place the issue on citywide ballot for March 3 -- which, though a primary election date in California, it is considered a special election for Livermore because its regular municipal elections occur in November.
Council members deferred their decision on establishing a tobacco retailer license program until their next meeting, wanting to give community members and city staff more time to investigate how the program would be affected by the referendum.