Despite the passage of Prop 31, California’s flavored tobacco ‘black market’ is alive and well due to a loophole, says ATF director

This story is part of a three-part series by ABC7 I-Team reporter Stephanie Sierra. For more on our in-depth investigation and how to watch, head here.

The sale of most flavored tobacco products is banned in California, but the I-Team has uncovered a loophole in law enforcement that could put young people at risk.

In December, a statewide ban went into effect, suspending the sale of most flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes statewide. The ban applies to everyone, but special attention is paid to keeping these highly addictive products away from teenagers.

CA Prop 31: What you need to know about the continued ban on flavored tobacco products

Yet why is it so easy for them to obtain it?

More than three million US middle and high school students use tobacco, according to new data released by the FDA and CDC. For the ninth consecutive year, e-cigarettes were the most popular tobacco product among middle and high school students, according to a national survey. But, despite a statewide ban prohibiting the sale of these products, the I-Team found that teens could still get them.

Does the ban work?

While the statewide ban went into effect in December last year, several other cities and counties had already implemented flavored tobacco bans, including Sunnyvale.

The I-Team asked an 18-year-old high school student to accompany us to visit several smokehouses in Sunnyvale. We watched the young man enter the store and followed shortly after to overhear the conversation with the store clerk.

He asked to buy Juul menthol pods – one of many flavored tobacco products included in the state and local city ban. The student told the I-Team that the store clerk had them in stock.

“While I was paying, I gave him my vaccination card,” the teenager told I-Team. “She said I needed physical ID.”

The sale did not take place. But once back in the car, the 18-year-old was able to go online and order 19 different options of 50mg nicotine flavored tobacco. The store clerk told him in the store that he allowed online pickup orders, which is not allowed by the local city ordinance.

“What we found through inspections is that they do indeed sell flavored tobacco,” said Christy Gunvalsen, the city’s neighborhood preservation officer who works with code enforcement.

The I-Team obtained public records showing the store had failed the last four inspections dating back to April last year. Yet nothing has changed.

Stephanie: “So what happens next for companies like this? I see on their website that they still sell these products.”

Gunvalsen: “Yes. They will be cited.”

Sierra: “How many quotes until it stops? »

Gunvalsen: “Well, we are working with the owner, the current owner of this retail establishment. Because at the end of the day, they are responsible for the businesses that they own.”

Records show that this store is one of 67 tobacco retailers in Sunnyvale. City code enforcement shows the majority were in compliance for at least one inspection this year.

But, this is not the case everywhere.

We’ve visited and checked out dozens of smokehouses across the Bay Area.

Some say they’re strict, some admit they’re not, and others told us they’re still confused about the rules.

“Have you received any instructions from the state? asked Sierra from the I-Team.

Dozens of retailers visited by the I-Team told us they had not received any instructions from the state on the new tobacco law or received a visit from a local law enforcement agency.

The tobacco black market in California

If you ask knowledgeable critics whether they say strict or not, the ban just doesn’t make sense. Partly because of the apparent loophole; anyone can apparently access illegal products with just a few clicks.

“It’s so easy,” said retired ATF assistant manager Richard Marianos.

Marianos carried out law enforcement operations involved in criminal tobacco trafficking. He says the state ban lacks an enforcement strategy, and because of this, demand for black market tobacco in California is one of the highest in the United States.

“The black market is alive and well in California,” Marianos said.

Marianos says former ATF investigators conducted market research to see how effective the ban is in different California communities. He says teams shopped to try to identify problem areas in Northern California.

“Seven out of 10 places they visited, they were able to buy contraband and illegal goods with impunity,” Marianos said. “It’s a problem that seven out of 10 sell to anyone.”

A well-known flavored tobacco product on the black market in the United States is beginning to gain popularity in California. These are called “gummies” and experts fear the product may be appealing to children.

“Is the problem worse in California compared to other states from what you’ve seen?” Sierra asked.

“It’s bad all over the United States, but California is one of the places where it’s gotten the most attention,” Marianos said.

Go here to watch ABC7 News I-Team reporter Stephanie Sierra’s three-part series on California’s flavored tobacco ban to see how it’s being enforced, if it’s working, and what problems have arisen.

Check out more stories and videos from ABC7 News’ I-Team.

If you’re on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live


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