Tobacco ordinance backfires on city

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From left: City Manager Jim Thorsen, Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal, Mayor Pro Tem Joan House, Mayor Lou La Monte and Councilmen Skylar Peak and John Sibert. 

With city staffers facing an enforcement dilemma, the City Council on Monday voted 5-0 to ease the stringency of a tobacco ordinance passed in 2011 aimed at cracking down on retailers caught selling tobacco products to underage youth in Malibu. 

The ordinance was introduced by Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal, after she was contacted by anti-teen smoking activists. But the city experienced difficulty enforcing the ordinance after two local retailers appealed alleged violations. 

“I had already hoped they would be training their employees,” Rosenthal said. “But if we have to waste a lot of time and resources on appeals and they get to continue [selling tobacco], or we lose the appeal, then that’s not being effective.” 

The amended “Tobacco Retailer Registration Program” ordinance now allows the city to issue a warning letter to first-time offenders and require them to train their employees, instead of revoking their tobacco registration— and ability to sell tobacco—for at least three months, as originally required by the ordinance. 

“There are several challenges with the ordinance [as written],” planning director Joyce Parker- Bozylinski said before the vote. 

Two local retailers, the Malibu Cigar Lounge and the Country Liquor store, retained lawyers and appealed the alleged violations after they were caught selling to minors in two undercover stings last year. The Malibu Newsstand was also caught in one of the stings. 

The appeals put Parker- Bozylinski in a bind, as the cigar lounge and liquor store argued that their businesses would take a huge hit if they were unable to sell tobacco for three months. The enforcement of the ordinance was placed on hold last November until the council could reassess the penalty process. 

“The Malibu Cigar Lounge, which sells nothing but tobacco products … essentially, we would be shutting them down for three months,” Parker-Bozylinski said on Monday. 

The newsstand also told the city that 25 percent of its revenue came from tobacco sales, and three months with those losses would cause great financial hardship, according to a city staff report. 

Enacted in November 2011, the registration program requires tobacco vendors in Malibu to register with the City of Malibu. Once registered, stores are subject to three annual undercover compliance checks. The operations involve an undercover sheriff’s deputy and a young person, called a “youth decoy,” attempting to buy tobacco products from the stores. Under the original ordinance, if a store was caught selling tobacco products to minors, it would lose its tobacco registration for a minimum of three months before it could reapply. Repeat offenses would result in longer waiting periods. 

The revised ordinance now also eases the registration revocation period on repeat offenses to 30 days for a second violation, 60 days for a third violation and 180 days for a fourth violation. 

Councilman Lou La Monte, who was also on the council when the ordinance first passed, on Monday said he was optimistic about enforcement at the time it was passed. 

“We didn’t think people would be breaking the law,” La Monte said. “Once we passed the ordinance, we found that they were.” 

Additionally, the revised ordinance now requires a $500 appeal fee for retailers looking to have a registration suspension overturned by the planning director.