Local youth in Visalia provide clarity on smoke shops

City council says it will consider banning the sale of flavored tobacco products within the city

VISALIA – A year ago, Jasmine Luna came to her first Visalia City Council meeting alone, nervous to speak in front of the authority figures and unsure if they were going to listen to her concerns about limiting smoke shops near schools. 

The Redwood High School junior talked about tobacco retailers’ overwhelming advertisements, their lack of identifying the age of those purchasing vape pens and flavored vape juices, and the fact they are located down the street from schools. In the case of Houston Elementary School, there is a smoke shop just 400 feet from the school’s front gate.

“I’m hearing that a lot of youth from ages like 11 up to 16 and 17 are getting access to smoke shops because they’re so close,” Luna said.

The issues of vaping in schools and the smoke shops themselves remain, but Luna’s leadership on the issue, which brought other students’ voices to the discussion, has resulted in the city council taking the first steps to prevent future smoke shops from locating near youth centers in the community. 

On March 21, the council approved the first reading of an ordinance and made changes suggested by Luna and other Visalia Unified students at the meeting prohibiting new smoke/tobacco shops from locating within 1,000 feet of schools, libraries, daycare facilities, parks and other recreational facilities “where minors congregate.”

“Part of the reason we’re taking this initiative and moving forward is because of the input you folks made, and the effort you came forward to address this council,” Mayor Steve Nelsen, who has a grandson at Redwood High School, said to a group of students in attendance. “And that’s what we like to see from our youth.”

Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian, whose wife is a high school English teacher, said he hears daily stories about students vaping in the bathroom, vaping through mouthpieces hidden in their sweaters on breaks and behind buildings around campus. He and the other councilmembers supported Luna’s suggestion to increase the distance between schools and smoke shops from a proposed 750 feet to 1,000 feet.

Community Services Director Paul Bernal said there are currently about 1,400 parcels zoned for smoke shops between the downtown mixed-use and commercial mixed-use zonings. He said implementing a 750-foot buffer, already in use by the city to separate adult oriented businesses from sensitive uses, would cut the number of available properties by nearly two-thirds. Bernal pointed out increasing the buffer zone from 750 to 1,000 feet would further reduce smoke shop zoned properties by a third, or about 332 eligible parcels. 

City Attorney Ken Richardson said the reduction in available parcels for smoke shops to locate was not overly prohibitive, meaning it does not indirectly create a ban on smoke shops in town.

Vice Mayor Brian Poochigian, whose wife is a high school English teacher, said he hears daily stories about students vaping in the bathroom, vaping through mouthpieces hidden in their sweaters on breaks and behind buildings around campus. He and the other councilmembers supported Luna’s suggestion to increase the distance between schools and smoke shops from a proposed 750 feet to 1,000 feet.

Community Services Director Paul Bernal said there are currently about 1,400 parcels zoned for smoke shops between the downtown mixed-use and commercial mixed-use zonings. He said implementing a 750-foot buffer, already in use by the city to separate adult oriented businesses from sensitive uses, would cut the number of available properties by nearly two-thirds. Bernal pointed out increasing the buffer zone from 750 to 1,000 feet would further reduce smoke shop zoned properties by a third, or about 332 eligible parcels. 

City Attorney Ken Richardson said the reduction in available parcels for smoke shops to locate was not overly prohibitive, meaning it does not indirectly create a ban on smoke shops in town.

The zoning amendment also added vaping to the list of tobacco products which, if they account for more than 30% of the shelf space in the store, would push a shop out of the convenience store category and into the smoke shop category and trigger the new rules. Vaping accounts for nearly one-third of underage tobacco use as of 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a huge concern for teen peers and parents alike. 

The last change adds parochial schools, private schools associated with a church or parish, to the list of “locations where youths congregate”, such as schools, libraries, daycare facilities, parks and other recreational facilities. Visalia has at least five parochial schools including George McCann Memorial, St. Paul’s School, Grace Christian School, Visalia Chirstian Schools, and Central Valley Christian. Bernal said staff also considered adding churches to the buffer list but it became too difficult to accommodate since churches are conditionally allowed in every zone in the city limits. 

Luna, now a senior at Redwood, made her fourth appearance on the issue in front of the city council this week. In addition to increasing the buffer, Luna also requested the council crackdown on tobacco sales, especially vape pens and flavored juices, to minors, reduce the amount of tobacco being advertised at smoke shops and convenience stores alike and consider banning flavored tobacco and vapes.

This time, she was joined by other students who supported her comments and reinforced her message.

Kalise Curtis, a junior at El Diamante, also spoke as two of her classmates held up posterboards showing the amount of tobacco related advertising on the windows and walls of local smoke shops. 

“These posters just highlight what we’ve seen in our community and the importance of what this would mean to us in our community if this was passed,” she said.

Councilmember Liz Wynn supported the suggestions and encouraged the handful of students in attendance to report violations to the city’s code enforcement web portal.  

Bernal said a federal law, the Tobacco Control Act, already forbids tobacco advertising in many forms and the city has an existing sign ordinance limiting the amount of advertising displayed at the store. Bernal said the city recently took action to address this issue with a local smoke shop.

“They received a nice little letter from our code enforcement division and has resulted in removing excessive signage,” Bernal said. 

The council unanimously approved the new smoke shop regulations as a first reading of the zoning amendment. The amendment will return to the city council in 30 days for a second reading and final approval. If passed, the ordinance would take effect 30 days after the second reading.

“Thank you to our youth,” Councilmember Brett Taylor said. “That’s a really powerful voice that you guys have and I can only imagine when I was your age, I would not have been out there talking to the city council.”

The city is also considering a ban on flavored tobacco and vapes. 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.

According to the latest data from the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, 11.3% of high school students and 2.8% of middle school students – over 2 million kids altogether – were current e-cigarette users. Eighty-five percent of youth e-cigarette smokers use flavored products. 

More than 100 cities and counties have banned sales of flavored tobacco, according to www.tobaccofreekids.org, the nearest being San Luis Obispo and Yolo counties. The most recent happened earlier this month, when the Santa Ana City Council banned flavored e-cigarettes, including menthol cigarettes and cigars, on March 2.

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