Flavored tobacco products will remain legal in Monterey County for at least three more weeks after county supervisors balked Tuesday at a partial ban, opting for a vote next month on a modified version.
The board unanimously voted to table the ban on flavored tobacco until its next regularly scheduled meeting over concerns that a carveout for so-called “modified risk tobacco products” could lead to the continued sale of flavored tobacco products throughout the county.
Modified risk tobacco, as regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, can include products like smokeless tobacco and vaping devices that pose generally lower health risks to users and the general population than traditional tobacco products like cigarettes.
Supervisors initially added an exemption for modified risk tobacco to the flavored tobacco ban during the ordinance’s introduction at the board’s Jan. 25 meeting.
On Tuesday, the board reversed course as it considered a second, ratifying vote on the ordinance, with supervisors arguing that the modified risk designation is primarily a marketing device by large tobacco companies.
“For us to amend an ordinance based on a marketing designation really doesn’t appear, to me, to serve the best interests of our children or our community,” Supervisor Wendy Root Askew said.
Askew added that Monterey County would be the only local government with a ban on flavored tobacco to include an exemption for modified risk products.
Michelle House, the health program coordinator within the county’s health department, said county health officials believe the modified risk designation to be an “attempt to undermine government regulation by utilizing (tobacco products) as harm reduction.”
Federal officials first introduced the modified risk tobacco product designation in 2009 as part of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which enabled the FDA to regulate the tobacco industry.
The FDA granted its first modified risk designation in 2019. Of the 14 federally approved modified risk tobacco products, three utilize flavored tobacco, according to county officials.
House noted that a study of tobacco product use among California middle and high school students found that roughly one-third of the 150,000 students surveyed had experimented with a modified use tobacco product.
“They’re already available and young people are already aware of them and young people are already using them,” House told the board.
Representatives from the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and Parents Against Vaping voiced their support during the meeting for the board rescinding its carveout for modified risk products.
“Don’t let Monterey County set a dangerous precedent by being the first community to exempt these harmful MRTPs,” said Alexa Wohrman, a spokesperson for the AHA, adding that a full ban of flavored tobacco products “is the best way to protect Monterey County from the predatory practices of big tobacco.”
The board is scheduled to hold its next regular meeting on March 1, at which time it will consider a full ban on all flavored tobacco products.
“I think we do less harm by waiting so as not to set any precedents that would potentially be detrimental on a much larger scale,” Askew said. “Let’s get it done (and) let’s get it done right.”