ALAMEDA COUNTY -- Flavored cigarillos, little cigars with the taste of fruit or chocolate that have grown popular with some young people, could be banned in Alameda County.
"People were really surprised at all the types of tobacco products that are now available and how attractive they look to youth," said Paul Cummings of the Alameda County Public Health Department. "There's been a rise in the use of the little cigars among young people."
Cigarillos now are sold in a variety of flavors, including fruit, chocolate, vanilla, honey, candy, cocoa and dessert, according to the proposed ordinance.
The ban would only apply to retailers in the unincorporated areas of the county, which include Castro Valley and San Lorenzo. Besides the packs of flavored cigarillos, the ordinance would also prohibit retailers from selling single cigarillos.
Young people are more likely to buy a single cigarillo, generally sold for less than $1, than a larger pack, Cummings said.
"I've seen them sold for as little as 49 cents. Most frequently it's 69 cents plus tax, or 75 cents out the door," he said. "We're very concerned these products are priced in such a way to be enticing."
The ban on single cigars would not apply to higher-end products that sell for $5 or more.
"Young people are not likely to spend $5 or $6 on a cigar. We want to make sure that we're not trying to impact adults who are legally using cigar products," Cummings said.
The little cigars also are popular among some as a way to smoke marijuana, Cummings said. They dump out the tobacco, replacing it with marijuana, he said.
"But they are still smoking tobacco because of the tobacco leaf in the wrapping paper," he said. "A lot of kids are not aware that they're using tobacco and are getting habituated when they're doing that."
Some retailers have questioned the value of the ordinance in curbing use of the flavored cigars, said Bill Mulgrew, Eden Area Chamber of Commerce executive director. For example, people who can't find the flavored little cigars at a shop in the unincorporated area can drive a few blocks to San Leandro to make a purchase, he said.
"The Eden Area Chamber of Commerce is definitely a firm believer that tobacco products do not belong in the hands of children," he said. "The whole idea of tobacco being targeted toward youth is hideous and should be stopped, but retailers aren't the right party to pressure."
Store owners would be subject to fines for selling tobacco to anyone younger than 18.
A check of court documents from 2010 found that all of the fines for selling tobacco to minors were assessed against store clerks, and they averaged $42, Cummings said.
"This ordinance holds the store accountable," he said.
The first violation would be a 30-day suspension of the tobacco sales license or $750. With a fourth violation, that increases up to a one-year suspension of the retailer's license and revocation of the license for a fifth offense.
Ali Saleh, manager at the Golden Pyramids tobacco store in San Lorenzo, questioned the idea of store owners being held responsible.
"That's not fair," he said. "The owner isn't there. The owner doesn't know what's going on once he leaves the business."
The proposed ordinance would require businesses to get annual county licenses to sell tobacco products. County staff members are recommending the fee be set at $200, though they estimate the cost of administering the program would be $615 per retailer, with the Public Health Department defraying the additional cost, Cummings said.
Alameda County officials will discuss the proposed tobacco retailer licensing ordinance.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: 377 Paseo Grande, San Lorenzo
Also: The proposed ordinance will be presented to the Castro Valley Municipal Advisory Council on Nov. 18 and the Sunol Municipal Advisory Council on Nov. 20.