San José smoking crackdown: Free cigarettes in bars could be next to go

Mercury News June 1, 2015

SAN JOSE — City officials want to drive tobacco companies out of San José’s bars and clubs, especially from gay bars where they’re handing out coupons for reduced-price cigarettes.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider an initiative to ban the distribution of tobacco coupons, samples or free cigarettes from all San José businesses. Councilman Raul Peralez said the measure reduces the risk of young adults getting hooked on smoking.

Tobacco company representatives stood near San José bars and clubs, distributing coupons for half-price or $1 cigarette packs that patrons could redeem inside.

“They were going for new drinkers in their 20s and 30s,” Peralez said. “It was a quick and legal way for them to get cigarettes into the hands of people that were drinking.”

The problem spread throughout San José, but advocates say the tobacco companies are targeting gay bars and venues. According to an assessment by the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health, 23 percent of the county’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community members are smokers, compared with 7.7 percent in the population as a whole.

LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) Youth Space, a downtown San José support center, signed on to support banning the tobacco sampling. Outreach coordinator Adrienne Keel said cigarette companies might be preying on the vulnerabilities of some members of the gay community.

“If people are dealing with a stigma, or maybe the stress of not being able to come out or coming out and not being supported, some of these things might be used to self-medicate,” Keel said, adding that alcohol companies often sponsor Bay Area gay pride events where tobacco vendors are present.

Brian Davis, a tobacco control program coordinator at Tri-City Health Center, said one tobacco company — Philip Morris — reported 564 scheduled visits to 10 clubs in San José in 2013 and 2014.

As a gay man, Davis said he faced stress in his 20s because of coming out of the closet. He doesn’t want to see others become exploited because of that.

“I’m very angry about the fact that Big Tobacco is using that to get us hooked on their deadly product,” Davis said.

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, declined to comment last week. Tobacco companies in the past have argued against similar regulations by saying they infringe their right to free speech.

City leaders first discussed the ban on tobacco coupons in November, but the initiative died before it could go to the City Council.

Now, Peralez and a few of his council colleagues support the new regulations, which expand on San Jose’s continuing effort to crackdown on smoking. Over the years, the city has banned smoking at multifamily complexes, public sidewalks, outdoor dining facilities and in certain areas of parks.

But as cities get smarter, so do the cigarette retailers.

“These tobacco companies are trying to find creative ways to get around the rules,” said Councilman Ash Kalra. “They are using any means necessary to coax young adults into smoking.”

Councilman Donald Rocha said he doesn’t believe the measure will lead to a significant investment of city staff time. If the regulations are approved Tuesday, the city’s code enforcement team would only step in when called to deal with violators.

But a manager at San José’s oldest gay bar said he doesn’t mind if tobacco companies hand out coupons near his business — as long as it’s not happening inside. He also doesn’t believe the coupons would lure young people into smoking.

“If you’re that easily swayed, then you’ve got some problems,” said Jim Michael, the daytime manager at Mac’s Club on Post Street. “By the time someone turns 21, they’re either a smoker or not.”

Another councilman agrees with Michael, saying he plans to oppose the measure on Tuesday.

“If they’re 21, we hope by that time they know what’s right and wrong when it comes to their own health,” Councilman Johnny Khamis said. “And if they’re in a bar, they’ve already chosen a path that’s probably more lethal than smoking.”