Gilroy butts into tobacco retailer’s businesses

Gavilan College: No ifs, ands or butts about smoking on campus

In 1870, the not-yet Garlic Capital of the world was actually considered the Tobacco Capital of the United States.

Gilroy once boasted “the world’s largest cigar factory,” producing more than 1 million cigars each month, according to the City of Gilroy’s website.

It’s an ironic page of history to ponder, considering the city might crack down on regulations for smokers and tobacco retailers in the next three to four months.

City staff is in the works of rolling out a tobacco retailer’s license ordinance, according to City Senior Planner Stan Ketchum. This would require the 60 or so stores in Gilroy touting tobacco products – cigars, cigarettes, snuff, etc. – to pay an annual licensing fee of an amount yet to be determined.

As it is, all tobacco retailers are required to pay a one-time fee of $100 to the State Board of Equalization, and obtain a permit that must be renewed annually (at no cost), according to the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health.

The topic drew mixed reactions during a Jan. 13 meeting of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce Government Relations Committee, which received an update from Ketchum.

“We’ve now moved into the area of foolishness. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. I think in these economic times, the government has a lot better use for its money,” said GRC member Glenn Pace.

Pace participates in the Government Relations Committee, which studies and analyzes issues of interest to Gilroy’s business community. The GRC takes advocacy positions on those issues, which in turn go to the Chamber board for official position approval. The Chamber then communicates its viewpoint to the community and elected officials.

Pace underlined other pressing matters deserving of federal resources, such as statewide home foreclosures and the rampant unemployment rate.

Councilman Bob Dillon said he wouldn’t be in favor of a new tobacco ordinance either.

“I think we already have tons of federal and state regulations that adequately control it,” he said over the phone Thursday. “I can’t think of anything more regulated than tobacco, unless it’s guns. I would oppose it as unnecessary. It’s another layer on top of business regulations that I don’t think we need.”

The ordinance would also prohibit smoking in city-owned parks and trails, increasing the list of places where lighting up is taboo.

As it is, Gilroy’s municipal code already outlaws tobacco use in indoor work environments, hospitals/healthcare centers, places of public assembly, libraries, galleries, museums and outdoor eating areas.

A $45,260 grant is currently being administered to the City of Gilroy by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, which was awarded a $6.9 million, two-year grant in 2010 through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work program. The program is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Gilroy began receiving the grant funding on Feb. 11, 2011, according to Health Information Office Amy Cornell with the SCC Public Health Department.

The intent of the grant is to allow cities to research, develop and work towards smoking prevention/cessation efforts and policies. While actions taken by participating cities vary, Gilroy is considering the route of (1) drafting a tobacco retailer’s license ordinance, and (2) banning smoking in all city-owned parks and trails.

Revenue generated by the annual license fees can only be used to cover the costs associated with administering the license and enforcing the provisions of the licensing ordinance, according to Cornell. The fee cannot be used for smoking cessation/secondhand smoke awareness outreach efforts, Cornell said.

On Feb. 11, 2011, Gilroy City Council agreed to accept the grant funds and move forward by drafting a tobacco retailer’s license.

Ketchum explained the grant amount is designated for the administrative costs associated with drafting a new ordinance, in addition to developing a smoking ordinance for city-owned parks and trails.

When queried as to why the City of Gilroy decided to apply for the grant in the first place, Kristi Abrams, City of Gilroy Community Development director, explained whenever a grant opportunity arises that is appropriate for Gilroy, “then we pursue that,” she said. “Smoking tobacco and second-hand smoke is a major health concern.”

News of a possible tobacco retailer’s license is so fresh, local tobacco retailers had no idea they might be soon saddled with additional operating fees.

Prior to the Jan. 13 Government Relations Committee meeting, Susan Valenta, President of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, said she placed a courtesy phone call to several tobacco retailers to gather their thoughts on the pending ordinance.

“The retailers had no idea that anything was in the works,” she said. “Had we not made the phone call, they would have been blindsided.”

Ketchum said the city hasn’t done any outreach yet “because we don’t have anything to show them or present to them,” he explained. “But as soon as we have a draft ordinance, we will be notifying the current retailers and letting them see what’s being proposed.”

Tobacco retailers will also have the opportunity to provide input on the ordinance before it goes to City Council, Ketchum said.

Neither Tony Asfour, owner of Tony’s Smoke Shop, or Eddie Ammari, owner of Rock Zone (both businesses are located along First Street in Gilroy) are thrilled with the idea.

“Honestly, no. It’s not fair,” said Asfour, who sells premium cigars, tobacco products and accessories out of his smoke shop at 231 First Street. “I don’t know what I can say … you have to go with the rules, but I still can’t see what the reason for that is.”

No one under the age of 18 is allowed in his store; something Asfour said is already strictly enforced and advertised via signs posted near his door.

Likewise, Ammari reluctantly pointed out “we already pay a fee to sell tobacco.”

“I just need to hear more about,” he said Tuesday over the phone. “That’s news to me.”

Councilman Perry Woodward said he would consider the proposition of a tobacco retailer’s license, “but only if it is geared 100 percent toward reducing smoking among minors,” he stipulated. “Then I would consider that. It would have to be very carefully tailored.”

Perry said he’s more interested in setting a precedence that prevents new retailers from selling tobacco within a certain distance of school sites.

As for no smoking in city-owned parks or trails, Woodward said he doesn’t condone the habit but asserted an ordinance of this nature “would be way over the top.”

The grant doesn’t cover the ongoing cost of enforcing the new ordinances; something Ketchum said City Council would take into account when it reviews the draft ordinance in three to four months.

“That’s another issue,” said GRC member Glenn Pace during a phone conversation Tuesday. “How do you police this? You can create all the ordinances it the world, but if you don’t have the policing force to administer it, it doesn’t do you any good.”

As for how much the license might cost, “we’re beginning that discussion, but it’s very preliminary,” said Ketchum, when queried if the fee would be less or more than $100. “That’s nothing I can disclose or describe.”

The city staff working on the ordinance includes representatives from the Gilroy Police Department and the city’s Finance, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Planning and Code Enforcement department.

The license fee, Ketchum continued, would provide the city with additional resources for enforcement of tobacco laws. It will also possibly allow for an annual inspection of each retailer.

As the ordinance is still in the works, Ketchum said he could not provide a ball park estimate of what the penalty would be for smoking in city-owned parks and trails.

According to the South County Morgan Hill Courthouse, citations for smoking violations under the current municipal code can cost offenders up to $375.

The Dispatch inquired with the Gilroy Police Department as to how many citations were given out in 2011 for smoking-related violations, in addition to the number of violations of sales to minors in the last several years. The GPD did not respond as of press time.

Before the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce takes an official stance on the ordinance and relays its opinion to City Council, members of the Government Relations Committee said they would like to know how many violations of tobacco sales to minors have been recorded in the last year; what kinds of training programs tobacco retailers have in place for their employees; and what kinds of smoking cessation resources are already available to Gilroy through the county.

GRC member Kristina Chavez Wyatt did point out during a phone conversation Tuesday that it’s not uncommon for local governments to try to levy taxes or fees on businesses “in attempts to cover resource gaps.”

By the standards of the American Lung Association – which just released its “Tobacco Control 2012: California Local Grades” report – Gilroy isn’t doing so hot when it comes to local tobacco control policies. The Garlic Capital received an “F” in all grading categories, which include “smoke-free outdoor air,” “smoke-free housing” and “reducing sales of tobacco products.”

For the record, no counties in Santa Clara scored above a “C” – with the exception of unincorporated county areas.

• A $45,260 grant is currently being administered to the City ofGilroy by the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, whichwas awarded a $6.9 million, two-year grant in 2010 through theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention’s Communities PuttingPrevention to Work program. The program is funded through theAmerican Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
• The intent of the grant is to allow cities to research,develop and work towards smoking prevention/cessation efforts andpolicies. While actions taken by participating cities vary, Gilroyis considering: 
– Developing a smoking prohibition ordinance in all city-ownedparks and trails.
– Passing a tobacco retailer’s license ordinance, which wouldcharge the 60 or so tobacco retailers in Gilroy an annual,undetermined fee to sell any type of tobacco products. Revenuegenerated by the annual license fees can only be used to cover thecosts associated with administering the license and enforcing theprovisions of the licensing ordinance. City staff is currentlyworking on drafting this ordinance.

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