County of Santa Clara Cracks Down on Illegal Sales of Tobacco Products

The Board of Supervisors, with a focus on protecting county youth, has approved significant increases in penalties for retailers who sell tobacco products to minors or market illegal tobacco products.


SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF. — The County of Santa Clara is dramatically increasing the penalties for businesses that sell tobacco products to minors or retail illegal tobacco products as part of a strategy to protect public health and prevent young people from getting hooked on nicotine.

The Board of Supervisor’s action Tuesday bolsters the County’s Tobacco Retail Permit (TRP) program, which bars retailers from selling any tobacco products to people under the age of 21. The program also prohibits retailers from selling e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and e-liquids, to anyone, regardless of age.
 
The updated TRP ordinance will go into effect on Oct. 13 for tobacco retailers in unincorporated Santa Clara County. The changes must be approved by the County’s three partner cities in the Tobacco Retail Permit program – Cupertino, Los Gatos and Palo Alto – before they could take effect there.
 
There are 54 permitted tobacco retailers in Cupertino, Los Gatos and Palo Alto and 13 in unincorporated Santa Clara County. Most tobacco retailers in Santa Clara County follow the law, and the County focuses on educating businesses about the requirements of the ordinance. The updates to the ordinance are expected to improve compliance and cut down on repeat offenders.
 
The enhanced enforcement of the TRP program includes sharp increases in fines and the permanent revocation of a permit for a third offense.
 
County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who proposed the changes, said he wants fines “to serve as a real deterrent, something that will really help keep folks legal.”
 
“Too often, businesses see lower-level fines as just a cost of doing business, and then continue to violate the law,” said Simitian, who serves as Chair of the County’s Health and Hospital Committee. “My hope and expectation is that stepped-up fines and more rigorous enforcement will change all that. And if we move more quickly to revoke the sales permits of frequent offenders, the ‘problem vendors’ will get the message.”
 
The revised ordinance mandates the following penalties for permitted retailers who violate the TRP by selling tobacco products to people under the age of 21 or selling prohibited tobacco products:
 
Penalties for permitted businesses that violate the Tobacco Retail Permit program

  First violation Second violation within five years Subsequent violations within five years
Previous ordinance Up to $100 fine and 30-day suspension of permit Up to $200 fine and 90-day suspension of permit Up to $500 fine and one-year suspension of permit
Updated ordinance Up to $1,000 fine and 30-day suspension of permit Up to $2,500 fine and 180-day suspension of permit Up to $5,000 fine and permanent revocation of permit


The ordinance also increases penalties for businesses that sell tobacco products without a valid tobacco retail permit:
 
Penalties for businesses that sell tobacco products without a permit

  First violation Second violation within five years Subsequent violations within five years
Previous ordinance Up to $100 fine and 30 days of ineligibility to apply for permit Up to $200 fine and 90 days of ineligibility to apply for permit Up to $500 fine and one year of ineligibility to apply for permit
Updated ordinance Up to $2,500 fine and 30 days of ineligibility to apply for permit Up to $5,000 fine and one year of ineligibility to apply for permit Up to $10,000 fine and permanent ineligibility for permit

 
The County is not alone in implementing tougher penalties on illegal tobacco sales. The City of San José, for instance, has mandated fines of up to $2,500.
 
“The County of Santa Clara is a national leader in protecting its residents from the harmful consequences of tobacco use,” said Supervisor Otto Lee, Vice Chair of the Board’s Health and Hospital Committee. “We continually evaluate new research and data to craft the strongest and most effective policies for controlling the sale of tobacco products.”
 
The County administers the TRP program for unincorporated areas and partner cities. The County Department of Environmental Health conducts an annual routine inspection of businesses and issues permits. The County Sheriff’s Office and local law enforcement for partner cities also conduct undercover inspections of permitted retailers using youth decoys.
 
When the Sheriff’s Office conducted enforcement operations at 20 tobacco retailers in September and December 2021, they issued citations to six retailers for unlawful sale of tobacco products to someone under the age of 21.
 
The 2019-20 California Student Tobacco Survey of high school students in Santa Clara County found that one in 12 students reported current use of a tobacco product, mostly e-cigarettes. Most current tobacco users (93.1%) in the study reported using a flavored tobacco product. More than half of teens who currently vape reported purchasing their own vaping products, with nearly a quarter of this group saying they buy them directly from a store.
 
The use of tobacco products by minors disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color. In the 2019-20 survey, more than 31 percent of Hispanic high school students said they have ever used tobacco products, the highest of any ethnic group. Stemming the illegal sale of tobacco products is a way to improve public health among disadvantaged communities.
 
"The steps taken today protect people from the harms of tobacco, harms that fall disproportionately on low-income communities, LGBTQ individuals, Latinos and people of African ancestry, due to targeted marketing by the tobacco industry," said Nicole Coxe, Program Manager for the Tobacco-Free Communities program at the Public Health Department. "Tobacco use by teens can lead to a harmful lifelong addiction, and these steps help prevent tobacco use by youth."
 
The updated ordinance gives the Department of Environmental Health the authority to access all areas of a tobacco retail business during inspections to ensure that e-cigarettes and other prohibited products are not stockpiled out of sight. If inspectors find illegal products, they now have the authority to seize or impound them.
 
The County Public Health and Environmental Health departments will continue to educate business owners about the requirements of the TRP program to promote compliance.
 
“The County will reach out to business owners to ensure they are aware of prohibited products and increased penalties for violations,” said Rochelle Gaddi, Interim Director of the Department of Environmental Health. “Working together, we can protect the health of our entire community, particularly our youth.”

ABOUT THE COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA
The County of Santa Clara government serves a diverse, multicultural population of 1.9 million residents in Santa Clara County, Calif., making it more populous than 14 states in the U.S. The County provides essential services to its residents, including public health protection, environmental stewardship, medical services through the County of Santa Clara Health System, child and adult protection services, homelessness prevention and solutions, roads, park services, libraries, emergency response to disasters, protection of minority communities and those under threat, access to a fair criminal justice system, and many other public benefits.
 

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Media Contact:  Laurel Anderson/Aaron Kinney, Office of Communications and Public Affairs, [email protected], (408) 299-5119

Posted: August 30, 2022

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