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City Council votes to uphold rules reducing tobacco retailers

The move was cheered by public health officials as a critical step in reducing youth smoking but decried by small business owners who say the rules are devaluing their investments.

Tiffany Rodriguez, a youth advocate, holds a sign during a City Council hearing on tobacco retail regulations in Philadelphia.
Tiffany Rodriguez, a youth advocate, holds a sign during a City Council hearing on tobacco retail regulations in Philadelphia.Read more

City Council voted Wednesday to uphold regulations meant to reduce the number of tobacco retailers in Philadelphia — a move cheered by public-health officials as a critical step in reducing youth smoking but decried by small-business owners, who say the rules are devaluing their investments.

In 2016, the city Board of Health established regulations that banned new tobacco retailers from opening within 500 feet of a school, limited the number of tobacco retailers to one for every 1,000 residents in a planning district, and temporarily halted sales for any retailer that received three violation notices within two years.

The rules did not remove licenses from those who had them but affected future applicants or those looking to sell their businesses and transfer the licenses to new owners.

On Wednesday, Council voted against a bill that aimed to reverse some of those regulations. The measure would have allowed a tobacco retail permit to be transferred to a new owner even if a store was near a school or exceeded the cap on the number of retailers in the area.

“We’re grateful that the City Council supported the Board of Health’s action to protect Philadelphia’s children from the marketing of the nation’s biggest killer, tobacco,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.

The goal of the original regulations was to curb youth smoking, a particularly big problem for Philadelphia, where more than a quarter of youths use tobacco. Although rates of cigarette smoking have dropped here as in much of the country, rates of cigar and e-cigarette use are climbing.

Philadelphia also has the highest rate of adult smoking among the nation’s 10 largest cities.

When the health regulations were introduced, Council passed a unanimous resolution voicing its approval. But in the next two years, members began hearing from the owners of convenience stores and bodegas that the regulations were crippling their ability to sell their businesses.

Joseph Difabritis has owned a 7-Eleven in South Philadelphia for 35 years. He’s ready to retire, but two buyers have turned him down after learning they can’t inherit his tobacco license. Tobacco products make up 30 percent of his sales by volume, he said.

“I’ve worked all these years assuming in the end there’d be something,” Difabritis said. “Now I feel there’s nothing.”

Bilal Barqawi, vice president of the 7-Eleven Franchise Owners Association of Delaware Valley, said many small-business owners feel cheated. After contributing to the economy for years and following regulations against selling to minors, “why are they hurting my investment?” he said.

Their plight prompted Councilman Mark Squilla to introduce legislation that would overturn allow people who own tobacco retail permits to transfer them to new owners.

“We were trying to protect small-business rights,” Squilla said. The current regulations aren’t cutting down on cigarette sales, they’re simply decreasing the number of retailers, he added.

But on Wednesday, the bill garnered only three votes, from Squilla and Councilmen David Oh and Allan Domb.

All three emphasized their support for the Health Department’s goal of reducing youth smoking, but said they don’t think the regulations are accomplishing that.

“When you reduce licenses in an area from, say, 300 to 150, people are still buying cigarettes,” Oh said. “They’re just buying from the 150 stores that are selling.”

Health Department data show that overall tobacco sales in Philadelphia have gone down since 2015, and that the number of tobacco retailers has decreased by nearly 40 percent since 2016. But it’s unclear whether the declines in sales are related to having fewer tobacco retailers.

Squilla suggested a better way to cut down on youth smoking would be to enforce age restrictions better. “You hear all the time that young kids are buying at these stores,” he said. “If they’re selling it to young kids, why aren’t we taking their licenses?”

But city health officials say that oversimplifies the issue. A Health Department report found that nearly one out of every four attempts by minors to purchase tobacco was successful in 2015. “But the regulations are also about reducing marketing that kids are exposed to,” Farley said. As tobacco advertising has been restricted on TV, the industry has turned to posters plastered in store windows to entice new smokers.

“Every time a child goes into a bodega to get a carton of milk, they’re tempted,” he said. “Over time, that makes a difference.”

Philadelphia has almost twice as many tobacco retailers per capita as other major cities, and nearly half of them are in low-income neighborhoods, which the tobacco industry is known to target. North Philadelphia, for example, has more than three times as many tobacco retailers per capita as Center City, according to the Health Department.

Nyne Sellers, a 45-year-old mother of four from the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia, said her sons regularly pass ads for cigarettes on their way to school. But if they take a walk in Chestnut Hill, they don’t see any ads.

“Why is that OK in communities of color?” she asked.

Research shows repeated exposure to advertising makes kids more likely to try smoking. And those who start don’t often stop. Ninety percent of smokers began the habit before age 18, according to a U.S. surgeon general’s report.

Tuck Yaw, a 52-year-old South Philadelphia resident, told Council he smoked a pack a day for years. Even after undergoing heart bypass surgery in 2012, he continued to smoke. Quitting was just too hard, with tobacco retailers and advertising on every corner of his neighborhood.

It wasn’t until a stroke paralyzed his right arm and leg in 2015 that Yaw finally quit — for his daughter. “It was so hard to see her take care of me when it’s supposed to be the other way around,” he said.

Research shows quitting is especially difficult for black, Hispanic, and low-income smokers, often because they are in environments where others are smoking and are constantly exposed to tobacco products.

But with the help of more tobacco regulations, Yaw said, more people can try.