VUSD appeals smoke shop location

Ben Irwin

Two new smoke shops approved through the Visalia Planning Commission, one sits 400 feet from Houston Elementary School

VISALIA – Two new smoke shops are popping up in Visalia, and one is just 400 feet from an elementary school, raising concerns from the Visalia Unified School District.

Erik Kehrer, chief operations officer for VUSD, said he has filed an appeal to the public hearing for the conditional use permit for PRD Cigarettes at 1410 W. Houston Avenue, a “stone’s throw” away from Houston Elementary School.

“Our schools are a tobacco-free zone,” Kehrer said. “A smoke shop, with the paraphernalia and everything else, we feel that it increases the students’ access to tobacco and could potentially increase the likelihood of unlawful consumption. We’re respectively requesting that they deny that permit.”

In his letter to the planning commission, Kehrer writes “the property’s proposed use impairs the District’s ability to enforce [a tobacco-free zone] and may be detrimental or injurious to the general welfare of the city, and detrimental to the health, safety, peace, morals, comfort and general welfare of persons residing or working in the neighborhood.”

VUSD is no stranger to the fight against the tobacco industry—and vaping in particular. At a Nov. 18, 2019 Visalia City Council Meeting during a push to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping devices in the city, Frank Escobar, director of student services for VUSD, said of the district’s 639 suspensions in the 2018-2019 school year, the majority were for vaping at the high school and middle school level.

One middle school teacher’s son took the podium to say that he’s seen vaping become a problem at his elementary school.

“When my friends and I see tobacco products with yummy flavors and cartoon characters, we think it is okay for us to try them. They look safe,” said Wyatt Lopez, a third grader. “Well tobacco is addictive and can kill you. I want you to protect kids like me from seeing products near our school.”

Kehrer said there’s a risk posed for students of all ages, whether a smoke shop is near an elementary, junior high, or high school.

“Our concern, really, with the elementary kids, is just the exposure to it, and possibly the exposure to other individuals around that area,” Kehrer said. “The younger kids do not have the judgment and can be easily swayed, and the clientele that could be around there—it’s really just not anything that needs to be near a school of any kind.”

A 2019 survey by the California Health Collaborative used in VUSD’s campaign against vaping and flavored tobacco gauged residents’ feelings about flavored tobacco. Of 114 people surveyed, 82% were concerned about the sale of flavored tobacco near schools and youth organizations and 89% supported a policy that restricts the sales of flavored tobacco products within 1,000 feet of schools and youth organizations. California Health Collaborative also concluded that in Visalia, 92% of tobacco stores near schools sell menthol or flavored tobacco products.

Despite the push backed by locally collected data and public opinion, the city council did not move forward with policy preventing the sale of flavored tobacco or vaping devices in the city, or within a certain vicinity of a school.

The planning commission also approved a conditional use permit April 12 for a second smoke shop, The Smoke Shack, at 3401 W. Noble Ave. in Visalia.

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