VISTA — Tobacco retailers selling products to underage customers in Vista could see harsher penalties on the horizon, including increased fines and the likelihood of license suspension and revocation.
At a Feb. 28 City Council meeting, several community members shared concerns about how easy it is for those under 21 to obtain vapes and other tobacco products in Vista due to retailers not checking IDs and urged the city to increase penalties.
With unanimous support from the council, city staff was directed to begin crafting an ordinance amending the city’s code to be approved in the future.
“I have a lot of friends who are minors, and it kind of breaks my heart to see them smoke tobacco and get vapes. I ask them, ‘Where do you get this? You are literally a child,’ and they’re like, ‘I know this place that doesn’t card; I know this place that will just give it to me,’” said Yeseña Hernandez, 23. “I’m just concerned for my family, my friends, everyone younger than me.”
In the past three years, 10 different tobacco retailers in the city have earned violations for selling to minors, resulting in citations for clerks and required staff training, according to city spokesman Fred Tracey. In addition, one of these retailers earned a second violation and saw their license suspended for 30 days.
Currently, penalties for retailers increase for all repeated violations in three years to a 90-day suspension for a third offense, a one-year suspension for a fourth offense, and license revocation for a fifth offense. The clerk making the sale faces a $200 fine for the first violation, $500 for a second violation, and $1,000 for a third.
Officials are tipped off to these practices by conducting decoy operations, where minors are sent into tobacco or alcohol establishments to test whether retailers will sell them prohibited products.
Councilmember Katie Melendez said the current system creates little accountability for the business owner since financial penalties are shouldered solely by the clerks. In the future, she advocated for code enforcement officers returning to stores to issue citations directly to retailers.
“When a young person is sold cigarettes or vapes, it can change the course of their life,” Melendez said. “It can destroy their health and their future, and I believe we need to have more accountability for our retailers and stronger language in our municipal code.”
Council members said they would support increasing the first-offense penalty to $750 and enforcing an immediate license suspension, with increased penalties for additional offenses. However, when crafting the ordinance, city staff must ensure the proposed measures don’t exceed the $1,000 penalty limit permitted under state law.
“I really think it’s the aggressive increase in fining, the suspension of licenses that will really make a change, hopefully, on these retailers,” said Councilmember Joe Green.
Local adults and students from local high schools made their voices heard regarding the dangers of tobacco, saying they support the adoption of more substantial penalties to de-incentivize retailers from selling to minors.
“Many times, it’s super easy to obtain these types of items, and I see many youth that easily get it,” said Daniel Ventura, president of the STAY Club at Vista High School. “I have a little sister at Vista Magnet, and it would be sad to see her get addicted to these things.”
Ventura added that students at Vista High have grown accustomed to the fire alarm being frequently set off due to vaping products, which poses a danger if an actual fire happens, but students don’t take the alarm seriously.
Representatives from organizations like CleanEarth4Kids and North Coastal Prevention Coalition noted that to prevent retailers from selling to minors, the city needs to “make it hurt.”
“They are selling an addictive, toxic substance. Addiction is part of their business model,” said John Bottorf, chief information officer at CleanEarth4Kids. “The profits these places make outweigh the penalty, and they will never change as long as the penalty is not as harsh as the money they make.”
City staff said they would also analyze potential regulations limiting the number of smoke shops in the city as an additional measure to limit tobacco use. Vista currently has 70 licensed retailers, equal to around one per every 1,400 city residents.
Such measures have been adopted in other cities like San Francisco, which in 2015 set a cap of 45 retailers per district, and Philadelphia, which limited tobacco retail density to one store per 1,000 residents per planning district in 2017.