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City to Revisit Tobacco Sales Restrictions

A gas station owner’s request for the City of Union City to reevaluate its 1,000 feet tobacco sales buffer is raising concerns among members of a nearby church and health advocates.

Just two years after setting new restrictions for tobacco sales, the City of Union City may make exemptions to its 1,000-feet tobacco sales buffer.

Sanjiv Patel, owner of the Shell gas station at 33365 Mission Blvd., urged officials Tuesday night to reconsider regulations established by a January 2010 zoning ordinance that prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of “sensitive uses” such as parks, playgrounds, public libraries, churches, schools and youth centers.

The zoning rules were adopted “for the protection of public health, safety and welfare of children." The buffer, which is set higher than most other Bay Area cities, covers almost all of the city’s commercial areas, staff said.

Though no immediate action was taken Tuesday night, the Council asked city staff to examine the impact of allowing gas stations to be exempt from the buffer — a matter that left some community members concerned.

Patel’s business, which opened last March at a previously vacant gas station site and is the first new business to challenge the sales restrictions, is located 450 feet from the located at 201 E Street.

“In my opinion, we are opening a place for our children and our young people where they can go and ruin their health,” said Nancy Eady, a member of the church and president of the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society in the Tri-City area. “We’re going to make it more available and easier to get.”

Other church and community members said that offering exemptions or, worse, reducing the buffer or removing churches from the list of sensitive sites — two of several options weighed and shot down by city officials — would not only put children at risk but put the city on a slippery slope.

“At the sake of profits, we’re willing to change [the ordinance]?” said church member Renee Ash. “You start with tobacco, with churches — what’s next? Parks? Alcohol?”

Members of health agencies also urged officials not to make any changes to its policies.

Due to the city’s efforts to restrict tobacco sales and smoking, Union City jumped from a “D” to .

“We are here to protect our children,” said Serena Chen, a policy director for the American Lung Association. “We teach them in the schools, we teach them at home, but we need the entire community to support us.”

According to Janice Louie, a program specialist for the Alameda County Public Health Department, tobacco is the number one killer in the county accounting for 17 percent of all deaths each year.

She said gas stations are of particular interest because 47 percent of underage youth nationwide reported buying cigarettes at gas stations.

But Patel’s gas station is just one of more than 10 within the city and is located just down the street from a liquor store and another gas station.

Patel said that he’s been left with an unfair disadvantage due to the city’s restrictions.

“By adding one more location, it’s not going to make a tremendous difference to the city, but it does for our competitiveness,” Patel told the Council. “It’s not affecting our profitability, it’s a matter of surviving.”

While existing tobacco retailers were “grandfathered” in and allowed to operate after the sales buffer took affect, Patel’s is the only gas station in Union City not allowed to sell tobacco products, despite the previous owners having sold them. Because the gas station was left vacant for a year before he purchased it, Patel had to apply for a new use permit under the new tobacco sales laws.

Patel, who has been in the convenience store industry for eight years and operates several service stations throughout the Bay Area, said tobacco sales are a major revenue generator.

According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, tobacco sales account for more than 30 percent of sales at gas station convenience stores.

Patel said many customers combine gas and cigarette purchases. Not being able to sell cigarettes dissuades them from stopping at his station and impacts gas sales, he said.

As a result, he’s had to lay off an employee and reduce hours for another, eliminating the night shift.

Being open later would benefit the community because of its prominent location on the corner of Mission Boulevard and Whipple Road, he added.

“If it’s open at night, it’s well-lit and will deter crime,” Patel said, noting that the station was run down with burned pumps, graffiti, trash and broken lights when he purchased it.

City officials acknowledged that there was a lot of crime, including drug sales and prostitution, in the area when the building was left vacant.

“I don’t think any of us particularly enjoyed the eyesore that it was,” Council member Lorrin Ellis said.

Ultimately officials agreed that the best solution would be one that benefits both the business community and the interests of the residents.

“What we don’t want to do is put a business out of business in Union City, and we don’t want to send a message to the city that we don’t value our youth,” Council member Emily Duncan said.

Though Council members were mixed about which direction to take, they all agreed that some changes needed to be made to the city's policy.

“We’re a friendly city for small business and I want to keep that. I also want to keep the buffer,” Jim Navarro said before adding that he’d support an exemption for gas stations.

Allowing an exemption for gas stations would have the lowest impact, city staff said.

“You wouldn’t be opening up the floodgates for tobacco retailers,” city planner Avalon Schultz said, noting that there was limited space in the city for additional gas stations.

The planning commission will reexamine the tobacco zoning text in April and another report should be presented to City Council in May, staff said.

Carly February 29, 2012 at 04:03 PM
A buffer zone?? How stupid. Yet another gov intrution to hurt small business and run people lives, protecting people from themselves nanny state style.
Thomas Clarke February 29, 2012 at 04:28 PM
The city of Union City should take the high road and ban the sales of tobacco and tobacco products throughout the city.
Laurie February 29, 2012 at 04:37 PM
Whoa! Big Brother is in Union City. How does this make cigarettes more accessible? One just follows the law and doesn't sell to minors. These restrictions make no sense. Now, can they sell liquor? Ya know, drink in the parking lot and then get out on the road. Now, that's a safety issue too!
Tim February 29, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Does anyone else find it ironic that the one place the city is considering exempting (gas stations) is the one place I sure as hell don't want anyone smoking. I don't see what good a ban on places one can sell cigarettes does anyway. I don't care where they're sold. You do still need to be 18 to purchase and it's the operators responsibility to check. I do care where they are smoked. I can't stand being forced to breathe someone's second hand smoke in public places near building entrances and under overhangs/tents, etc. How about a ban on that, city council???
Betsy February 29, 2012 at 06:45 PM
If it is against the law to smoke it in Union City than why allow it to be sold at all in UC?
Zoneil Maharaj February 29, 2012 at 07:22 PM
The city actually does have restrictions for smoking in public spaces. In November 2010, the city passed another resolution to ban smoking in multi-family rental units and at public events and certain outdoor locations, including bus stops and city owned and operated recreational areas. The smoking ban in apartments just went into effect last week on the 23rd because the city gave landlords 14 months to modify leases, notify tenants about the new laws and install signage to restrict smoking. That ordinance also established a retail tobacco license to bring in more revenue to the city to increase enforcement and conduct more tobacco sales stings. We've got more on all that here: http://patch.com/A-cff7
Timothy Swenson February 29, 2012 at 07:40 PM
Since it is already illegal to sell tobacco products to minors/youth, what is the need for a restriction on the proximity of a church? This restriction on proximity only affects adults. The statement by a church member, "we are opening a place for our children and our young people where they can go and ruin their health" is null and void. The statement by Ms. Chen, "We are here to protect our children," is also null and void.
Tim February 29, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Interesting, Thanks Zoneil.... I guess it's not an issue of not having an ordinance, but rather one of enforcement. Who are the "cigarette police" that are responsible for enforcing? I'm guess UCPD has better things to do.
ordinary joe February 29, 2012 at 08:39 PM
Mr. Swenson, Could you plaese elaborate what do you mean by "null and void". It has been illeagal to murder people in this country for quite sometime now but murders happen everyday. I think at least three murders were committed in the Decoto area in the last 12 months. May be you could say those murders are null and void and resurrect them!
Timothy Swenson February 29, 2012 at 10:54 PM
I don't see the connection between tobacco sales and murders. What I mean by saying that their statements are null and void is that the proximity prohibition would not affect the sales of tobacco products to youth, because it is already illegal. Why make it it illegal twice? If there is an issue with youth getting tobacco products, then there needs to be better enforcement there.
Davis February 29, 2012 at 11:22 PM
The City should restrict smoking everywhere! The City should stay true to their motto, "Tax and Spend", All businesses should sell tabacco, it is more revenue for the City. Maybe they can hire an Assistant to the Assitant to the Assistant to the City Manager!
Amy March 04, 2012 at 06:30 PM
1. At present large stores like Walmart, Walgreens, Safeway etc. where kids and family visit frequently sell tobacco products. 2. At present all existing (and permitted) stores in Union City Sell tobacco including some VERY NEAR the school, park and church (No 1000 ft ban applies to them) 3. At present there is access of tobacco products across border to Hayward or Fremont without such legal limitation as Union City. This drives business to next door cities and makes Union City uncompetitive. 4. Current ordinance seems more like getting A++ grade at cost of small business in Union City. It does not have any impact on items 1,2 and 3. Lots of emotional talks and points, but stick to current ordinance and its implications. - Non Smoker
ordinary joe March 05, 2012 at 01:29 AM
1. When the restrictions were placed in 2010, the existing stores were exempted from the regulation and were asked to get Union City licenses by paying certain fee and they did. 2. Where were you when Union City passed a measure in 2010 to increase the City sales tax by 0.5%? 0.5% increase in the City sales tax is the biggest motive to shop elsewhere compared to this. 3. Talking about the implicatioons, it would be on the kids, neghborhood violelnce and once we start on this slippery slope, where do we stop? 4. Isn't our health, our kids's health more important than a few people goping elsewhere to buy their cigarettes? 5. Like you said, there are plenty of tobacco shops in Union City. Why do we need one more? Do we need one for every block?
Sandi629 May 10, 2012 at 05:39 PM
If youth can't walk 1000 feet or less to purchase (or convince someone to purchase for them) cigarettes, they are more likely to say "forget it". I'm sure even smokers don't want kids to start smoking, they know what a strong addiction it is. Tobacco companies have been lying and deceptively marketing to kids forever. Have you seen a tobacco ad on a window 3ft off the ground next to a Slushy Dog ad? I have! After all, it was a tobacco executive who said, "We don't smoke that sh**. We reserve that right for the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid." Don't help them trick youth into an addiction that wastes their health and wealth.

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