Sonoma County, CA

Floor Pricing: Sonoma County Leads on Tobacco Control

Why don’t tobacco-related health problems affect everyone equally? And what can communities do to reduce disproportionate tobacco use among underserved groups?

Predatory Marketing Practices

Nestled in grassy, golden hills about an hour north of San Francisco, Sonoma County in California — a county of 500,000 people — is one of the places where some of the nation’s recent tobacco control innovations got their start.

In Sonoma County, like elsewhere in America, the harms of tobacco use aren’t distributed equally among different groups of people. Teenagers, communities of color, rural communities, and low-income neighborhoods have higher rates of tobacco use than other population groups and also suffer from tobacco-related health problems at higher rates.

These disparities in tobacco use and health problems didn’t arise by accident. Tobacco companies often target residents of underserved neighborhoods with predatory advertising and flavored tobacco products.

“Big Tobacco uses all kinds of evil ploys to get people hooked and keep them addicted,” says Derek Carr, an attorney at ChangeLab Solutions. “Targeting underserved communities with cheap tobacco products is one of tobacco companies’ many sales and marketing strategies that lead to health disparities.”

Cutting-Edge Solutions

In 2016, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a jurisdiction-wide tobacco retailer licensing ordinance that set a minimum price of $7 per pack for cigarettes, little cigars, and cigars sold in unincorporated areas of the county. The ordinance established a licensing program for all Sonoma County tobacco retailers and was the second tobacco retailer licensing initiative in the country to impose a tobacco price floor, after New York City.

"Smoking remains the number one preventable cause of death locally and nationally."

“The adoption of the tobacco retail license gives the county the opportunity to implement strategies aimed at protecting our youth,” said Efren Carrillo, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “It is also a recognized strategy to reduce health disparities identified in A Portrait of Sonoma County, which included the recommendation to reduce smoking in the county.”

Other provisions in the ordinance prohibit tobacco sales in pharmacies and within 1,000 feet of schools. The ordinance also caps the total number of tobacco retailers allowed within the district. In addition, young people under 18 are no longer permitted to enter stores that primarily sell tobacco products. Finally, the ordinance incorporated a retail certification aimed at preventing youth smoking and encouraging healthy eating habits.

“Smoking remains the number one preventable cause of death locally and nationally,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is the board’s liaison to the county’s Department of Health Services. “I’m proud that we took this step toward a healthier community.”

A Health and Equity Role Model

As the Sonoma County Department of Health Services (SCDHS) was developing the tobacco retailer licensing ordinance, the Board of Supervisors expressed concerns about the economic impact that location and density restrictions might have when small tobacco store owners decide to sell their business. SCDHS contacted ChangeLab Solutions to help incorporate business incentives into the ordinance in order to address the board’s apprehensions.

"Sonoma County should be proud that they were at the forefront of promoting health equity and fighting back against tobacco companies."

“Tobacco retailers can be quite creative in finding new ways to sell their harmful products,” says Pratima Musburger, tobacco control program director at ChangeLab Solutions. “Fortunately, our model policies are adaptable to local circumstances and changes in the tobacco industry. We’re prepared to incentivize a transition to healthier retail practices.”

Since Sonoma County adopted the minimum floor price ordinance, other jurisdictions in California have followed suit. The East Bay cities of San Leandro and Alameda implemented similar ordinances in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

“Sonoma County should be proud that they were at the forefront of promoting health equity and fighting back against tobacco companies,” says Musburger. “It’s very inspiring to see other communities use a similar approach to improve residents’ health.”

Looking to implement a tobacco retailer license in your city or country? Check out our tobacco retailer licensing tools and our fact sheet on minimum floor price laws.

Photograph by Steven Ramirez, PDM 1.0 DEED, via Flickr