A street in City Heights
A street corner market in City Heights, one of San Diego’s food deserts. Photo by Megan Wood /inewsource

The passage of a flavored tobacco ban in the city of San Diego is good news for public health. It could be particularly good news for San Diegans living in communities where independently owned food markets and liquor stores affiliated with the Neighborhood Market Association are the primary source of groceries.

That’s because the city council’s 7-2 vote to outlaw flavored e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products presents a timely opportunity for neighborhood markets — located in “food deserts” stretching across the city’s urban core — to fill empty stores shelves once stocked with brands like Juul, Blu, Camel, and Marlboro with foods and beverages that promote healthy, equitable and resilient communities.

Food deserts are residential communities with limited access to healthy, nutritious food. These underserved regions are primarily low-income communities of color where residents have limited mobility.

Without transportation and the purchasing power to access groceries at big-box retailers located outside their neighborhoods, residents of food deserts have no choice but to feed their families the high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages that are readily and conveniently available at their corner market.

Approximately 25% of all census tracts in San Diego County are food deserts. In the city of San Diego, most are clustered to the east of Interstate 805, extending to the city limits.

Advocates of the flavored tobacco ban maintain sugary sweet flavored tobacco is a dangerous gateway to nicotine addiction among children and young adults. Their arsenal of research includes studies presenting the range of preventable chronic diseases linked to flavored tobacco — including heart and lung disease, cancer, and diabetes — and chronicling the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing campaigns targeting kids, women and girls,  people who identify as LGBTQ and communities of color.

The Neighborhood Market Association campaigned against ending the sale of flavored tobacco. Claiming flavored tobacco products comprise between a quarter and half of its members’ retail sales, association leaders warned of the pending economic hardship the ban would bring upon its members, forcing its mom-and-pop markets to lay off workers, raise prices on other products and potentially close.

But passage of the flavored tobacco ban sets the stage for the association to pivot to a new business model. It can encourage its members to stock fresh fruits and vegetables, nutritious foods, and healthy beverages at their corner markets and liquor stores. It can advocate for a new relationship with suppliers of products that trigger the onset of life-sapping chronic
disease.

Fortunately, the association needn’t look far for guidance to navigate this vital transition. The San Diego County’s Live Well Community Market Program is primed to support the trade organization’s transformation.

Grounded in best practices to help market owners develop business models that attract new shoppers and increase their bottom line, the program is a catalyst for neighborhood markets interested in selling fresh, healthy, and affordable foods and beverages.

Specifically, the program collaborates with owners and operators to improve interior and exterior store designs and expand promotion and availability of these products. This dynamic empowers their customers to join them in building healthy, stronger communities.

In partnership with the UCSD Center for Community Health, the community market program prioritizes collaborations with small, independently owned food markets serving low-income communities, including City Heights and Southeastern San Diego. The program offers a Live Well San Diego countywide platform that publicly recognizes community markets for their participation and commitment to public health.

The program is free, a winning proposition for the small businesses it serves.

The passage of the flavored tobacco ban offers the Neighborhood Market Association a new opportunity. The community market program can provide the organization and its members with the resources and expertise to help them transition away from a business model dependent on unhealthy products.

Viewing the flavored tobacco ban as an open door, not a dead end, it’s fair to ask: Why wouldn’t neighborhood market owners choose to cultivate customer loyalty by stocking their shelves with locally sourced produce and affordable consumer brands that promote healthy, thriving communities?

Dr. Rodney Hood is managing partner of the Care View Medical Group and president of the Multicultural IPA, a group of independent physicians delivering culturally sensitive healthcare. Dr. James Dunford served as San Diego’s first director of emergency medical services and is medical director of the McAlister Institute, which provides low-cost substance abuse treatment, drug intervention, and recovery support.