Guest Author: John Mirisch
UC San Francisco Professor and distinguished anti-tobacco advocate Ruth Malone once pointed out that in the history of consumer products, there has never been anything deadlier than cigarettes. She went on to note that somebody would finally say that tobacco is too dangerous to be sold on every street corner.
Two years ago when I was mayor of Beverly Hills, that’s exactly what we said as a Community. Our Council unanimously passed a sweeping sales ban on tobacco products within our city, which took effect on January 1st of this year.
The ban was preceded by a longer process in which we restricted areas where people could smoke, including at almost all public places throughout the city and within all multifamily housing. We also banned flavored tobacco, which was and is a nasty trick Big Tobacco uses to hook teenagers on nicotine. We had wrestled with tobacco for literally decades, and our strategy was to take baby steps to restrict its use, to protect the health and safety of our residents, and to create a healthy City.
In 2018 when we were discussing the ban on flavored tobacco products, I made the suggestion to simply cut the Gordian knot and ban tobacco sales within our City. The initial reaction from many was: “You can’t do that… Can you?”
Actually, as our City Attorney confirmed, you can, and we did.
Our first-in-nation ban on the sale of tobacco products was the logical consequence of years of policies pushing us in the right direction. The final step was not an easy one politically, but was in every way a logical one.
Every city is distinct and unique; for a city like our own, so focused on the health and safety of our residents, our tobacco sales ban reflects the values of our Community. The feedback from our residents has been almost universally positive.
From my perspective, local government when done right is the best form of democracy: it’s closest to home, and home is an almost sacred concept. A question all local policymakers, including elected officials, should be asking themselves on a daily basis is: What can we do to improve the lives of our residents? What can we do to make things better?
If we can improve the health of our residents, then we will also be improving their quality of life.
According to national polls, some 70% of smokers want to quit and over half of them would favor a sales ban. In conjunction with our sales ban, our City offers our residents programs to assist them with ending their addiction to tobacco and to start living healthier lives. As part of ending tobacco sales, the City also offered strategic assistance to businesses to replace the lost revenue from tobacco sales with different sources, including healthier alternatives.
The key is for a community to be transparent about what its mission is and to commit to working with retailers, residents, the business community, and health experts to achieve the ultimate goals of a smoke-free city and resident health and wellness.
As was the case in Beverly Hills, youth advocacy groups, as well as groups focused on childhood and adult health, can play important roles in the adoption and acceptance of tobacco sales bans. And while Beverly Hills was the first city to take action, this effort, broadly known as “Project Sunset,” represents a California, national, and global movement.
The time has come for other cities nationwide and globally to follow the path we have forged. Manhattan Beach, another city in LA County, followed our lead. The path may not always be straightforward as special interests attempt to create obstacles. As an apocryphal Mark Twain quote states: “You’re never wrong for doing the right thing.” Cities should never worry about being early adopters, because not only are “Project Sunset” policies on the right side of history, they also can almost immediately benefit the health of their residents.
Dr. Malone was right. The science is indisputable. It’s now time for other cities to say that tobacco is too dangerous to be sold on every corner — and to actually do something about it.
John Mirisch has been a member the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009 and has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember. He currently also serves as a Board member of Action on Smoking & Health.