San Jose Considers Blocking Tobacco Company Giveaways

UPDATE: In a 9-2 vote, the City Council passed an ordinance that makes it illegal to distribute free or cheap tobacco products or coupons for tobacco products in public spaces. 

San Jose may join dozens of other California cities in outlawing distribution of free or low-cost tobacco products.

For years, tobacco companies have deployed hucksters to dole out free or cheap cigarettes at San Jose bars, mostly in downtown and clustered around San Jose State University. In exchange for a quick ID scan and mailing list sign-up, they offer a pack-for-a-buck coupon redeemable that same night.

State records show that Philip Morris peddlers made 564 visits to San Jose bars and clubs, handing out coupons and nominally priced cigarettes, between 2013 and last year.

Existing federal law bans manufacturers from handing out free cigarettes—called sampling—or anything more than a 15-gram package of chewing tobacco, but doesn't regulate e-cigs or cigars. State law prohibits sampling in public spaces, but it doesn't apply to adult businesses like bars and says nothing about e-cigarettes and cigars.

The local ordinance up for a vote at Tuesday's City Council meeting would make it illegal for tobacco companies to pass out cigarettes or e-cigs anywhere within city limits.

At least 45 cities in California have passed similar rules restricting sampling beyond provisions in state and federal law. Yet only a handful have cracked down on sampling e-cigs, also called vapes.

The sampling ban came up for discussion last fall, but never made it past the Rules and Open Government Committee. Months later—with several new council members sworn in—council members Don Rocha and Raul Peralez revived the measure.

San Jose's tentative "Butt Out of Bars" initiative borrows from a sample ordinance by the Tri-City Health Center, a Fremont-based health advocacy group that has lobbied for similar regulations elsewhere in the Bay Area. Even the business community rallied behind the cause.

"As a Chamber of Commerce, we are vigilant of any regulation that would unduly burden our member companies without a consequent public good," Matt Mahood, chamber CEO, wrote to city officials in September. "We feel, however, that this regulation both provides a public health benefit without placing an unfair or frivolous burden upon commerce. In fact, the prohibition against free e-cigarette giveaways and nominal cost tobacco products has already been enacted in San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward, Fremont, Richmond, and forty other municipalities throughout the state of California. We feel that San Jose would be prudent in adding their name to that list."

On a regional level, Santa Clara County is moving forward with plans to up the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21. That proposal comes before the Board of Supervisors later this month.

More from the San Jose City Council agenda for June 2, 2015:

  • Transportation infrastructure remains one of the city's most underfunded needs. It would cost the city $992 million to repair all the streets, lighting and right-of-way landscaping that need upgrades. It would cost another $175 million a year to keep it all in serviceable condition.
  • During the 2013 biennial homeless count, census workers found 4,770 homeless people in San Jose. Seventy-seven percent lived in abandoned building, cars, camps or on the streets, making San Jose the 10th largest city in the nation for unsheltered populations per capita. With that in mind, the city is trying to identify funding for street-level services, like temporary parking shelters and warming stations. In a progress report to the council, interim Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand said the city will start a pilot program for 30 vehicles this year, while putting out a request for proposals for something more long term. The city is also looking at drumming up $350,000 in private funds to pay for tiny homes for 50 people. One of the city's main tools, however, is the housing voucher, which costs $2 million a year to house 200 people. The problem is that with a rental vacancy rate of 3.3 percent citywide, even people with a voucher have been unable to find a place to stay.
  • The city could improve its outreach to women- and minority-owned businesses when soliciting bids for improvements at the Mineta San Jose International Airport, several city leaders state. In a shared memo, council members Chappie Jones, Ash Kalra and Margie Matthews wrote that the city needs "a much more diverse outreach plan beyond sending letters out when a bid is open."

WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Newsflash…. “Tobacco Giveaways and the Hucksters who Huck them,” is not really the priority that the Council and its biased Cheerleader JW and SJI make them out to be.

    What are higher on the list? Maybe Burglars who Burgle, Robbers who Rob, Rapists who Rape, Pimpa who Pimp, Speeders who Speed, Street Racers who race, Marijuana Collectives that provide to persons under the legal age,… to name just a few.

    Then there is the 17 people who showed up to accept the job as police recruit in the newest poke academy…. SJ’s recruiting efforts are not attracting qualified candidates for the job. The Academy is budgeted for 60 recruits, 19 were offered jobs (2 were recycles from previous classes) and 17 accepted the offer… meanwhile Police staffing is at 855.

    San Jose has much bigger problems than tobacco.

    • The Merc’s article claims that the cigs (I could use another slang name for cigarettes but for fear of offending the censors at SJI won’t…) are being marketed primarily at San Jose’s “gay bars.”

      Some spokesperson from the LGBT community cries foul alleging companies are taking advantage of LGBT’s living in or out of the closet whow turn to cigs to sooh their stresses.. I guess the mouthpiece could be half right. My brain tells me that most patrons of gay bars are probably “out” otherwise why go?

  2. ‘Twas a sad day we closed down our cirque
    Our biggest fools left without any work
    So we elected the clowns
    And now suffer the downs
    As they amuse only the jerks at the Merc

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