Los Altos council OKs tobacco ordinance & See Me Flags

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos’ new tobacco sale ordinance outlaws flavored tobacco but provides exemptions for stores that only sell tobacco.

The Los Altos City Council last week unanimously approved two staff-introduced efforts to protect local youth.

The council Feb. 11 voted to further regulate the sale of tobacco and approved a pilot program to place See Me Flags at an intersection near Covington School.

The new tobacco ordinance – the first to regulate the sale of tobacco or tobacco-related products in Los Altos – includes language similar to that of a law recently passed by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. It is specifically aimed at e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco, which studies show are especially attractive to teens.

The See Me Flags – available for pedestrians to use while crossing the street to be more visible to motorists – will be placed at the intersection of Covington Road and El Monte Avenue. Although city staff presented the flags as an option to improve safety at the busy crossroads, they ultimately did not recommend the flags to the council due to concerns over the city’s liability. Two councilwomen expressed similar concerns before voting for the pilot program.

21 and over

The growing popularity of electronic smoking devices, commonly known as vape pens, among teens led the council to restrict tobacco sales in Los Altos. Trevor Marsden, the city’s management analyst fellow, noted that such products – often sold in fruit and candy flavors – are causing serious health issues.

The sale and distribution of e-cigarettes will be prohibited starting June 30.

The city’s new tobacco sales ordinance, effective 30 days from last week’s meeting, is nearly indistinguishable from the county’s ordinance after which it was modeled. The sale of flavored tobacco, specifically marketed to teenagers with tastes like mango or mint, is illegal. Any business that wants to sell tobacco now has to purchase a license to do so from the city – fee to be determined.

Pharmacies and stores with pharmacies will no longer be able to sell tobacco. Retail businesses without pharmacies, including gas stations and liquor stores, may continue to sell tobacco but can’t offer flavored varieties.

There is one exception, however: Stores that only sell tobacco are exempt from all of the new restrictions. There are 14 retailers who sell tobacco or tobacco-related products in Los Altos, but only Edward’s Pipe & Tobacco Shop at Village Court Shopping Center falls under this category.

Owner Debbie Morton told the council she would likely have to close her shop without the exemption.

“I cannot maintain a business without my flavored tobacco,” she said. “I have vanilla (flavored tobacco), I have rum runner, I have chocolate, I have custards. Those are what you’re listing in your article.”

Edward’s Pipe & Tobacco will have to follow regulations to continue selling flavored tobacco, though. The rules include not allowing anyone under the age of 21 inside the shop and posting signs to notify the public of that rule, and it will not be able to sell food or alcohol.

The Los Altos ordinance also allows the city to keep enforcement and licensing local, a requirement Marsden said law enforcement authorities support, as Los Altos Police Chief Andy Galea nodded his head in agreement.

The council passed the ordinance with an amendment that the sale of disposable vaping devices, which include the pen and cartridge all in one, will not be permitted.

Weighing the risks of flags

The council last year requested that staff provide an analysis on the success or failure of See Me Flags as a way to improve safety at crosswalks without crossing guards, and transportation services manager Tom Madalena last week listed a few reasons why staff didn’t think they were a good idea. The negatives: No studies showed an increase in safety, the cost and maintenance of the flags and the false sense of security the flags create for pedestrians.

While staff and councilmembers also worried that the placement of flags could increase the city’s liability if a collision occurred in the crosswalk, two Covington parents said pedestrians faced an even bigger risk by crossing the intersection. Jaimie Walnes, a parent who has spearheaded efforts to increase safety measures at Covington and El Monte, said she has been hit twice after jumping out in front of cars that were about to hit kids.

“There is not a stop sign, there is not a flashing light, there is not a pavement. There is nothing to protect these children,” said Walnes, who addressed the council nearly three hours into the meeting. “I really appreciate the Covington Road Complete Street improvements, but they are not coming anytime soon, and we are getting hit and threatened every single day.”

Although councilmembers Jeannie Bruins and Neysa Fligor showed concern over using See Me Flags as a way to boost safety at the intersection, fellow councilmembers Lynette Lee Eng, Anita Enander and Jan Pepper were in favor of placing them there through the end of the school year and asking the Complete Streets Commission to monitor the program.

“I’m literally scared to death for your kids,” Enander told the Covington parents just before her vote.

The motion passed unanimously with a recommendation for an analysis on the possibility of placing a “No Right Turn on Red” sign at the intersection.

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