California Votes “Yes” on Proposition 31 Banning the Retail Sale Non-Tobacco Flavored Tobacco Products
On November 8, 2022, California voters approved the Referendum on 2020 Law That Would Prohibit the Retail Sale of Certain Flavored Tobacco Products (Proposition 31). The referendum, submitted in accordance with the provisions of Section 9 of Article II of the California Constitution, asked California citizens to vote on whether to uphold a 2020 law (Senate Bill No. 793) that banned the sale of most non-tobacco flavored tobacco products at tobacco retailers and in vending machines.
Senate Bill No. 793
In 2020, the California legislature passed, and Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 793 (S.B. 793), which added sections to the State’s Health and Safety Code that would prohibit tobacco retailers—specifically brick-and-mortar stores and vending machine operators—from “selling, offering for sale, or possessing with the intent to sell or offer for sale, a flavored tobacco product or a tobacco product flavor enhancer (emphasis added).” A tobacco retailer is a person who engages in this state in the sale of tobacco products directly to the public from a retail location.
The statute defined flavored tobacco product as meaning “any tobacco product that contains a constituent that imparts a characterizing flavor” and tobacco product flavor enhancer as meaning a “product designed, manufactured, produced, marketed, or sold to produce a characterizing flavor when added to a tobacco product.” Both terms encompass a broad swath of products, including, but not limited to, e-cigarettes, vape pods, and chewing tobacco.
According to the statute, flavored tobacco products and tobacco product flavor enhancers cannot have a “characterizing flavor.” A “characterizing flavor” is defined as a “distinguishable taste or aroma, or both, other than the taste or aroma of tobacco, imparted by a tobacco product or any byproduct produced by the tobacco product.” The definition continues by listing examples of characterizing flavors, including “tastes or aromas relating to any fruit, chocolate, vanilla, honey, candy, cocoa, dessert, alcoholic beverage, menthol, mint, wintergreen, herb, or spice.”
This law does not apply to hookah lounges that sell non-tobacco flavored hookah (i.e., shisha or waterpipe) tobacco to be used inside the venue. It also excludes certain cigars and loose-leaf tobacco from the ban. Lastly, while this measure does not address online sales of non-tobacco flavored products, legally selling tobacco products online to California is very difficult, as a practical matter, and requires compliance with the PACT Act and shipping restrictions by common carriers, as well as the California STAKE Act.
Similar Flavor Bans
California is not the first governmental entity to adopt a ban on non-tobacco flavored tobacco products. Dozens of cities, counties, and states like Massachusetts have passed bans on non-tobacco flavored tobacco products. Cigarettes with specific characterizing flavors—other than menthol and tobacco—were banned in 2009 when the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) was enacted (see section 907). Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in April 2022, proposed a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes and all non-tobacco flavored cigars.
Challenge to the Los Angeles County Ban
In September 2019, Los Angeles County enacted its own ban on the sale of all non-tobacco flavored tobacco products, including cigarettes, little cigars, smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes, hookah, synthetic nicotine products, flavored liquids and wraps designed to add flavors to tobacco products. Industry quickly brought a challenge to this ban. Over the last two years, tobacco product manufacturers R.J. Reynolds, the American Snuff Company, and the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company have challenged the ban in federal court.
The manufacturers broadly argue that Congress granted FDA sole authority to regulate “tobacco product standards” when it passed the TCA. And while the TCA does preserve some authority to states and other political subdivisions under section 916, these bans on non-tobacco flavored tobacco products equate to unlawful product standards. Therefore, state and local bans on flavored tobacco products are preempted under federal law. Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed a district court’s decision that federal law does not preempt Los Angeles County’s ban on all flavored tobacco products. Following this, R.J. Reynolds and its co-plaintiffs have filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
 The Associated Press called the voting at 11:49 pm on Nov. 8, 2022. See Election Results 2022 California AP Projects: Californians Pass Prop 31, Upholding Ban on Certain Flavored Tobacco, https://www.cbsnews.com/sacramento/news/prop-31-californians-projected-to-uphold-ban-on-certain-flavored-tobacco/ (updated on Nov. 9, 2022).
 S.B. 793, 2019-2020 Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2020).
 Cal. Health and Safety Code § 104559.5(a)(4), (15).
 S.B. 793 cross-references the definition of “tobacco product” with the definition found in paragraph (8) of subdivision (a) of Section 104495 of the California Health and Safety Code.
 Cal. Health and Safety Code § 104559.5(a)(1).
 Cal. Health and Safety Code § 104559.5(c).
 Cal. Health and Safety Code § 104559.5(d)-(e).
 87 Fed. Reg. 26,454 (May 4, 2022); 87 Fed. Reg. 26,396 (May 4, 2022).
 L.A. Cnty. Code §§ 11.35.020, 70.
 21 U.S.C. §387p (2022).
 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. et al. v. County of Los Angeles, 29 F.4th 542 (9th Cir.), available at https://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca9/20-55930/20-55930-2022-03-18.pdf?ts=1647623028.
 Petition for Writ of Certiorari, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. et al. v. County of Los Angeles, available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/22/22-338/242733/20221007155331079_RJR%20v.%20County%20of%20LA%20-%20Cert%20Petition.pdf.
Ian Murray, Law Graduate at Keller and Heckman, also contributed to this article.