A version of this post also appeared as a letter to the editor in the April 19, 2016 edition of the Press Democrat newspaper. 

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors still has a chance to step back from its overly punitive anti-tobacco ordinance as it comes before the board for a second reading Tuesday. That seems unlikely, of course. Something so illogical and poorly drafted could never have gotten so far if it were driven by thoughtful deliberation.

The county already has embraced some of the toughest anti-tobacco restrictions in the nation. Yet by its own admission, middle- and high-school students still smoke cigarettes at nearly double the statewide rates. This Tobacco Retail Licensing (TRL) ordinance is designed primarily to “reduce illegal sales of tobacco products to minors by enacting retailer conditions that reduce the appeal and access of products to underage youth,” according to the county’s own summary.

Think of that logic. It obviously already is illegal to sell tobacco products to those who are under the legal age to buy them. The state, by the way, aggressively enforces such rules. Sonoma supervisors figure that, because already-tough rules aren’t working, they need even tougher rules.

Instead of cracking down on retailers or customers who break the law, they’ve decided to harass all retailers and buyers by artificially driving up the cost of the products for everyone, in hopes that they become too expensive for the kids to buy them.

“Any hopes that $7 a pack would dissuade adults … were probably smothered with Gov. Brown’s announcement of the plan to raise the state minimum wage,” wrote one local editorialist. That argument at least spotlighted the “Alice in Wonderland”-like absurdity of having the state manage prices (and wages) as a means to prod people into making wise choices.

The rules also focus heavily on cigars, whereas cigarettes are the main concern regarding teens. Specifically, these sales restrictions include setting a minimum price for a pack of cigarettes to $7, which would be adjusted annually by the cost of living. As it currently reads, the ordinance also sets a minimum price of $7 for a single cigar and packs of mini-cigars.  There are myriad and contradictory limits on retail licenses based on formulas best understood by bureaucrats.

California already is facing burgeoning tobacco black markets. Those who want to smoke also can order such products online – or simply drive to another county. And many of the poorest residents will simply have to pay more to sustain their admittedly bad habit. Furthermore, county officials have ignored many of the concerns raised over the past year by retailers.

That’s no surprise. Instead of seeking productive ways to reduce teen smoking, it has embraced a policy based on posturing and emotion.

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