San Juan Bautista
– The Mission City is considering an ordinance that would
require merchants to obtain a special license to sell tobacco.
San Juan Bautista – The Mission City is considering an ordinance that would require merchants to obtain a special license to sell tobacco.

The proposed ordinance is intended to combat underage smoking and is similar to an ordinance adopted in May by the Hollister City Council.

Both city ordinances were introduced following a tobacco sting last year in which a surprising number of underage buyers were allowed to purchase tobacco products from local merchants. In 2005, the county sent youths to 42 local tobacco retailers, and 33 percent of the stores were willing to sell tobacco to minors.

“We’ve got to try to get a handle on that 33 percent,” county health educator Mike Torres said.

The proposed law requires retailers to check the identification of tobacco purchasers who appear to be 26 years old or younger. Code enforcement staff would perform annual stings to make sure the ID checks actually happen.

Retailers who violate the ordinance could have their license revoked for up to five years and be fined up to $1,000.

In Hollister, tobacco retailers must now pay a $269 annual fee in order to obtain and keep their license. The fee is supposed to cover the license’s administration and enforcement costs.

San Juan Bautista’s council was scheduled to vote on the ordinance Dec. 19. But according to City Manager Jan McClintock, the decision was delayed until January. McClintock said councilmembers want to know more about the program’s cost – specifically whether the ordinance carries a big bill that could lead to a higher fee for businesses.

“We don’t have as many businesses (as Hollister) to spread the cost across,” McClintock said.

Some Hollister retailers have also expressed concern about the program, which Torres said is “just getting under way.”

One business owner acknowledged that paying for a license won’t be a great hardship, but he complained that in order to sell tobacco, he already has to pay hundreds of dollars in state fees.

“This is just typical government,” he said.

However, Hollister Councilwoman Pauline Valdivia noted that none of the more than 30 retailers affected by the ordinance voiced opposition when the council voted on it.

She added, “I have not heard any negativity from the merchants.”

Torres said the 2005 survey showed a sharp increase in youth tobacco sales from previous years. From 2001 through 2004, he said, 20 percent or fewer of surveyed retailers were willing to sell tobacco to minors.

The Hollister ordinance also outlaws self-service tobacco displays and itinerant tobacco vendors, such as food trucks. Comparing the tobacco license to an alcohol license, Torres said approving Hollister’s ordinance was a smart decision.

“Before this, anyone could sell tobacco,” Torres said. “We had ice cream vendors selling it.”

He added that the passage of a tobacco ordinance in San Juan Bautista will be “an important piece” in controlling underage smoking countywide.

According to figures from the Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing, similar ordinances have been successful in other communities. Berkeley, for example, adopted a licensing ordinance in December 2002. Since then, tobacco sales to minors have dropped from 38 percent to 5.8 percent.

Valdivia said she’s glad Hollister got on board.

“It’s going to be good for the community,” she said. “Healthwise, at least.”

Anthony Ha covers local government for the Free Lance. Reach him at 831-637-5566 ext. 330 or [email protected].

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.

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