L.A. County Board of Supervisors Unanimously Votes for Tobacco Flavor Ban Despite Pleas for Hookah Cultural Exception

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Hookah Chamber of Commerce reports on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' unanimous vote for a tobacco flavor ban rather than developing regulation or focusing on education and enforcement to directly address the issue of teen vape usage.

Arnold Abramyan, of Hookah Chamber of Commerce, holding a hookah. Writing engraved on wall pictured above the hookah reads “THIS COUNTRY IS FOUNDED ON FREE ENTERPRISE CHERISH AND HELP PRESERVE IT”.

Arnold Abramyan, of Hookah Chamber of Commerce, holding a hookah. Writing engraved on wall pictured above the hookah reads “THIS COUNTRY IS FOUNDED ON FREE ENTERPRISE CHERISH AND HELP PRESERVE IT”.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on September 24, 2019 to ban flavored tobacco products despite testimony of over 360 speakers of which a clear majority opposed the ban 3 to 1. The flavor ban ordinance was developed to address the rise in teen vape usage which dramatically increased from 2017 to 2018. However, rather than developing regulation to directly address this issue or focus on education, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors chose to do a complete tobacco flavor ban, which would prohibit retailers from selling menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigarillos, cigars, and hookah tobacco in addition to flavored vape and e-cigarettes. This overly broad ban would prevent adults 21 and over from purchasing these products from retailers in Los Angeles County thus forcing them to nearby cities, on-line stores or the black market where several speakers stated that the problem of sales to minors originated.

The most concerning is that Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Turks, Indians and other hookah enthusiasts who enjoy this centuries-old practice of hookah will be prevented from purchasing these products in Los Angeles county where high concentrations of these communities reside. The Hookah Chamber of Commerce and many other speakers asked the board to make a cultural exemption for hookah and emphasized that hookah is not vape but rather a rich cultural tradition. Hookahs are generally 1 to 4 feet tall and cumbersome in nature making it difficult to conceal in your pocket, school locker or backpack. In addition, it takes between 15-30 minutes to set up a hookah which requires coals to be heated. This process could not realistically be done during recess at school. Several speakers cited Governor Newsom’s executive order address on September 16, 2019 stating that “hookah is not the problem in classrooms”.

Dozens of speakers also stated that flavored products helped them quit smoking and improved their health. Others warned that they would lose their jobs to the ban and worried how they would support their families.

“(It’s) a horrible idea to ban this,” said A. Kouture, founder of the International Black Restaurant & Hospitality Association. Kouture pointed out that government didn’t ban McDonald’s over worries about children’s health or prohibit flavored alcohol over concerns about teen drinking and warned that the ban would fuel a black market.

Recent deaths related to vaping THC products were linked to products purchased on the black market.

Despite passionate testimony by dozens of speakers, Dr. Ferrer, the Department of Public Health Director stated that the ordinance wouldn’t ban the use of hookahs, only the use of flavors. However, hookah tobacco principally comes in flavors thus the flavor ban is a de facto ban on hookah. Dr. Ferrer went on to say that 2% of high schoolers surveyed by her department used hookah in the prior month. This low percentage does not reflect epidemic proportions that would call for a ban of the entire hookah tobacco category and is relatively low compared to underage drinking which is as high as 30% in high schoolers.

Many of the anti-hookah arguments at the meeting lacked credible scientific data or were unsubstantiated. A few speakers quoted a study made in 2010 on the effects of waterpipe tobacco smoking on health outcomes in the International Journal of Epidemiology which states that a 45- to 60-minute hookah smoking session is as harmful as smoking 100 or more cigarettes. However, within the study itself it stated limitations and uncertainties including that the studies were conducted in China where tobacco is unprocessed and burned directly by charcoal. It is important to note that hookah tobacco is typically processed and normally coals are not placed directly on the tobacco. Moreover, the study acknowledges other shortcomings such as measurement bias, variables such as type of tobacco, quantity of tobacco and frequency and length of smoking session.

Board of Supervisor, Janice Hahn, and other board members did not take into consideration the multiple strong arguments against the ban and demonstrated with their swift vote without much deliberation that they had already decided. To many spectators this seemed like a formality and not true democracy. In an attempt to address the underage use of vape a centuries-old cultural tradition enjoyed by adults became collateral damage.

The ordinance needs to come back to the board for a second reading, as early as next week, and would take effect 30 days after that second vote. Tobacco retailers would then have 180 days, under an amendment proposed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, to obtain new licenses required under the ordinance and to clear their shelves of flavored tobacco products.

About Hookah Chamber of Commerce
Hookah Chamber of Commerce is the largest business and professional hookah organization, concerned with the future of hookah commerce, hookah industry, and hookah civic progress.

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Arnold Abramyan