Politics

Pinball Party Time

New Legislation Means More Arcade Games For San Francisco

Working to shed the title of San Francisco’s Top Buzzkill, Supervisor Scott Wiener has taken a moment out of his normally busy schedule outlawing public nudity and crusading to restrict the public’s use of city parks to remind us that, hey kids!, he’s still hip to the needs/passions of the youth vote.

I refer, of course, to the legislation he co-sponsored with Supervisor London Breed, which the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve today, modifying restrictions on pinball machines and arcade games inside city businesses. The San Francisco Chronicle did us the favor of explaining the clearly onerous existing regulations, which were passed way back in 1982 when the questionable morals of Mrs. Pacman seemed a very real threat:

The law currently requires a business to secure a city permit to have any arcade game on its premises; it also prohibits the games within 300 feet of a public playground or school or within 1,500 feet of another business with arcade games, and in any neighborhood zoned for residential use; and limits the number depending on square footage of a business, with a maximum of 10.

Well pop the champagne and take a hammer to your piggy bank, because under the new law bars can have four machines and non-bars can have up to ten without securing a permit.

Shit just got real.

Of course, lest shit get too real, the revised regulations on “mechanical amusement devices” do not completely roll back restrictions. Rather, Supervisors Wiener and Breed have made it easier for establishments to carry a limited quantity of arcade machines without going through the Entertainment Commission. For previously illegal arcades such as Free Gold Watch, this paves a pathway towards legitimacy that wasn’t previously available.

So the next time you’re cited for having the audacity to be in Dolores Park past what Supervisor Wiener considers to be an acceptable hour, just remember, Wiener has your best interests at heart.

Courting the Leather Vote

Kink for Campos Serves Vanilla

“Mainstreaming” is the process of making something accessible to a wider audience, which inevitably makes it less transgressive.

As anyone in the Mission will tell you, the transformative power of mainstreaming comes with costs, both real and imagined. Kink.com has played a role, both naughty and nice, in the larger transformation of the neighborhood surrounding it, and has been born of and shaped by many of the same power dynamics itself.  Nowhere was that more clear that an otherwise unremarkable campaign fundraiser put on by Kink owner Peter Acworth for State Assembly candidate David Campos at the Armory Club on Monday night.

This was no Jack Davis party: besides some shirtless bros, the fetish art and a speaker’s bare feet, there wasn’t much skin, so it was all very respectable and therefore pretty boring.  The media can be excused for some sensational coverage—local publications depend on a certain “point and laugh at San Francisco” demographic of prudes around the country for page views—but at this point, there’s not much controversy around courting the leather vote, at least not locally. Statewide or national ambitions might be another matter.

“I tend to want politicians to leave me alone,” Acworth joked to the crowded bar after the stumping was underway. “And I leave them alone.”  But Acworth could use some friends here and in Sacramento, as Assembly Bill 1576 requiring condoms in adult film production could make it more difficult or expensive to continue doing business in California.  Acworth later acknowledged personally that moving his operation to Las Vegas was a real possibility, meaning he’d want to go ahead with plans to convert the Armory building into office space.

Campos is by no means the first politician Acworth supported, just the most generously supported. By being the first to engage with Acworth “pro-actively,” the Campos for Assembly campaign has received donations from the entrepreneur in February and March totaling $1,200.  In the past, Acworth has contributed $125 to Mark Leno for State Senate in 2008; at least $500 to Rebecca Prozan for Supervisor 2010 and Bevan Dufty for Mayor 2011; while John Rizzo Supervisor got $500 from Acworth and Christina Olague got $500 from Cybernet Enterainment, Acworth’s company, when both were running for the District 5 Supervisor seat in 2012.

Leno has long been an enthusiastic supporter of the leather community, and at least among other LGBT politicians, stumping at Folsom to whip up the vote is de rigeur.  Interestingly, until 2010 Acworth listed himself as a “Self Employed” “Movie Producer and Distributor” on local election financing forms. But starting in 2011, he’s listed as the President, Web Entrepreneur or Owner of Kink.com—because there’s being out, and then there’s being out on campaign finance disclosure forms!  

Of course, none of these candidates have run for statewide office yet, so it’s too early to judge if such transparency might hurt them at the polls.  As 50 Shades of Grey crossed over, both the business of Kink.com and its physical plant were on the frontier between existing organizations catering to the community in SOMA and the influx of monied libertines, many if not most of them heterosexual, looking to have some risqué fun in the Mission.  

In his formal remarks Campos praised the city’s nightlife and entertainment industry, which he said was why he, “like so many in the LGBTQ community came to San Francisco,” and expressed his “fear that we’re going to lose the role that nightlife and entrainment play.” He then thanked Acworth and Kink for being “a very responsible partner in this community,” citing their safety efforts, fundraising drives and event hosting. “For that I want to thank you, Peter.”

But when asked afterward about the statewide condom requirement law backed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Campos assured that his position hasn’t changed, he is pro-condom.  When asked about what kind of jobs he wanted to see created by companies like Kink (or the startups that replace it when the Armory is converted to office space), he responded with his own question: “How are we sure these jobs are available to the neighborhood,” including “women and people of color?”

Kink certainly employs a lot of women as independent contractors, on commission.  But when SF Weekly columnist Matt Smith revealed to officials that full-time employees of the company were enrolled in a state-funded job training program at the Bay Area Video Coaltion, the funding was cut off.  Campos wasn’t familiar with the incident, nor was Acworth, particularly.  Even though it’s the very kind of technical training that could help San Franciscans keep up with the demands of the labor market and land those precious startup jobs.

Which suggests that while politicians might be interested in kinky votes and kinky money, it’s not clear that they’re actually willing to stand up for kink, per se. At least, not once they leave the city.

Gouging Tourists Pro Tips

Will David Chiu Let You Rent Your Apartment on Airbnb?

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced legislation yesterday that would clarify regulations around short-term apartment rentals through sites like Airbnb, VRBO and Craigslist.  “My legislation creates limited flexibility for permanent residents to earn the additional income they need to help pay their rent and every day bills, but not at the expense of converting our limited supply of housing into hotels or vacation homes,” Chiu declared in a press release.

By requiring residency by hosts and registration of listings with the city and providing enforcement provisions for violators, the bill could signficantly affect the supply of units in San Francisco, where Airbnb and Craigslist are both based, restricting or even rolling back inventory growth right in their own backyards. It essentially holds Airbnb to the message of the company’s “sharing economy” marketing and lobbying message—that the service helps individuals and families make ends meet—by permitting some tenants and most individual homeowners to use the service while restricing units taken off the long-term rental market for use on the short-term rental market, which may be the bigger business and definitely presents the bigger threat of displacement.

In a statement, Airbnb called the proposal “an important first step,” but “not perfect,” specifically citing the registration requirement as problematic. So how, exactly, would this affect a typical San Francisco tenant who might already be making a few bucks on the side even at the risk of losing their home? Currently the practice is often illegal for both tenants and landlords, no taxes are collected and city enforcement is basically nonexistent. In New York’s far larger market, estimates peg the share of illegal listings at more than two-thirds, and even Airbnb admits that city is missing out on $21 million or more in tax revenue.  Tenants in SF have received eviction notices related to short-term rentals listed on Airbnb for violating their leases, and the San Francisco Tenants Union has begun going after landlords who have evicted tenants only to rent the units out illegally online—including two who combined the Ellis Act and Airbnb to empty their buildings and convert them into defacto hotels.

The proposed bill only applies to short term stays (less than 30 days), and mostly applies to multi-unit buildings, because single-family homes are generally treated separately in city codes, and one of Chiu’s primary goals is to protect rental stock from being “hotelized.”  So the bill calls for tenants and owners to apply to a registry maintained by the Department of Building Inspection every two years and establish that they are a permanent resident, which means living in the housing unit nine months out of the year.

So no, you can’t move to Costa Rica and turn your old rent-controlled apartment into a VRBO timeshare when you’re not using it as a pied-à-terre, at least not if you’re booking stays less than a month.  And if you’re a landlord, you can’t leave units empty year round and hire a service like Guesthop and Urban Bellhop to manage the unit, or become a speculative master tenant by leasing multiple units across the city. You can, however, list an apartment you own or rent and live in for short stays totaling no more than 3 months in a year, and if rent-controlled, you can not charge more than your own rent in any one month to prevent scenarios like a tenant who’s pocketed profits.

When asked at the press conference announcing the legislation if that meant that someone could conceivably rent the couch in their living room for enough nights to make their monthly rent at the press conference announcing the legislation, Chiu and San Francisco Tenants Union President Ted Gullicksen concurred that scenario was acceptable.

But that’s all based on the assumption that you have a landlord’s permission to sublet in the first place, which is not at all a safe assumption.  Standard leases generally include an absolute prohibition against subletting or assignment, so you could still ultimately be evicted on those grounds. But if you have a handshake deal with your landlord or a provision allowing you to sublet with permission, you have notified your landlord of your intent to host paying guests and they don’t turn it down within 14 days, and you’ve secured $150,000 in renter’s liability insurance coverage, you’d be good to go.

Even if you still decide to take the risk, the bill does address the incurable illegal use violation eviction notice that has become a strategy among landlords and their attorneys by changing the Rent Ordinance’s Just Cause eviction protections to make the first offense (and only the first offense) curable.  While signing up for the registry would not be a lease violation, the registry will still be a public record with only names redacted.  But the landlord will theoretically still have to prove repeated violations occurred in order to formally secure an eviction.  And it also opens you up for potential nuisance violations if, say, somebody decides to host a brunch munch in your unit.

Uptown Almanac chatted with someone known to have rented their unit out on Airbnb, who for obvious reasons wished to remain anonymous.  “It’s about time city law got on board with something the city power brokers are wholeheartedly supporting.  Allowing renters to take advantage of the demand for San Francisco — just as property owners are — is not only fair, it’s crucial for middle-class earners to be able to survive, let alone save, in this completely unreasonable market.”

They said that while they are allowed to sublet under the terms of their lease, they took a photo of their building off of listings because “I dont want an enterprising lawyer to contact my landlord.”  Hence they don’t like the registry requirement, especially since it doesn’t seem to provide any benefit to the host, and also wanted to know what the city planned to do with the new tax revenue collected through the vacation rental sites.  “I’m not convinced it protects me, as someone who lives in my home full time and rents out a room from time to time to pay bills and save money. And I’m not sure why it’s necessary… It conflates me with people who use their properties in a vastly different way. I don’t see why I would benefit from being on a list and paying tax.”

As for Airbnb, Craigslist and other such sites, they’ll be required to educate hosts on the local law and help enforce violations by blacklisting units that are found not to comply.  They will also be responsible for collecting the 14 percent Transient Occupancy Tax from customers. An estimate from the San Francisco Bay Guardian says that the city has been losing out on about $2 million a year on revenue based Airbnb’s own publicly released data. However, there are not yet proposed standards for informing customers of the proposed regulations, something Airbnb doesn’t currently make very obvious, as Valleywag’s screenshot illustrates above.

In the end, the legislation would have to cross the desk of Mayor Ed Lee, who might not want to piss off wealthy political supporter, sf.citi impresario and Airbnb investor Ron Conway by signing the restrictions as proposed into law, especially as the company—valued at $10 billion—is predicted to go public this year.  So far the Mayor’s office has accommodated the status quo.  “We were focused on helping an industry begin, but I believe with some smart regulation — particuarly now that Airbnb and perhaps others have indicated they want to pay the taxes associated with those rentals — I think we have a way forward. But we’ll get into all the details,” Lee told the SFBG.  

Presumably, the next stop for the legislation will be before the Land Use and Economic Development Committee for a hearing and public comment.  If recommended, Chiu will need six votes to pass the bill with Mayor Ed Lee’s support, eight without it.  Pass or fail, Chiu may have already won some political points in any case for confronting the issue as he campaigns against fellow Supervisor David Campos for a seat in California’s State Assembly this year.

Workin' the Pol

Animated Leland Yee Biopic Premiers as Senators are Suspended with Pay

After a 9am meeting this morning in Sacramento where California State Senators asked their colleague Leland Yee to resign, Yee presumably refused, so the senate voted to suspend him and two other possibly corrupt senators, Rod Calderon and Rod Wright, with pay. Just in time for Taiwan’s Tomo News to release an epic summary of the events surrounding Yee’s indictment and alleged criminal activities!

The video takes some liberties with the facts—Paolo Lucchesi’s tour of restaurants named in the indictment doesn’t include a Panda Express, and an exclusive KPIX interview makes it clear that Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow isn’t actually a six-foot crustacean—but we can all agree that a panda and FBI agent making it rain on pole dancing politicians tastefully serves to illustrate the $69,800 in contributions made to Yee campaigns by undercover agents between 2011 and 2014.

Sheeeit

Criminal Complaint Against "Shrimp Boy," State Senator Alleges Drugs, Guns, Fraud, Money Laundering & Murder-for-Hire

News broke this morning that State Senator Leland Yee was arrested along with dozens of other defendants, including Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, and homes and businesses in San Francisco and across the Bay Area raided by federal officials who found, among other things, a marijuana grow operation. This afternoon, Yee, Chow and 17 other defendants appeared before Magistrate Judge Nathaniel Cousins for an initial hearing to determine if they would be detained pending further hearings.

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow (picture, left) was in the first group of twelve defendants for today’s initial hearing in a criminal complaint brought by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag’s office. Friends and family of the accused were joined in the courtroom by dozens of journalists and attorneys, eventually requiring an overflow room to accomodate the crowd.  The 133-page complaint was unsealed by Judge Cousins shortly after the hearing began. The charges, in brief, were read aloud in the court room.

Chow stands accused of money laundering and conspiracy to traffic in stolen cigarettes. Charges against the other eleven defendants, including Keith Jackson (pictured, right), a political consultant and longtime ally of State Senator Leland Yee, included gun running, narcotics trafficking and a murder-for-hire conspiracy. Each count of the money laundering charges alone could bring 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Based on the affidavit in the complaint, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has spent years investigating Chow, whom it claims is the “Dragonhead” of the Chee Kung Tong, having infiltrated the organization with an undercover agent posing as a member of La Cosa Nostra—Mafia members with connections in New Jersey. However, at the hearing, Elizabeth Faulk, Chow’s court-appointed federal public defender, argued for his release citing over a decade without being accused of any crime after Chow spent much of the 80s in 90s in prison on multiple criminal convictions including racketeering.

Five of the first twelve defendants were eventually released, with the rest having their bail hearings pushed ahead to Monday and Tuesday. Shortly thereafter, Leland Yee was among seven more defendants brought before Judge Cousins, and stands accused of gun trafficking and six counts of wire fraud. Yee was somber but alert in a faded windbreaker and only slightly tousled hair, replying only “yes” when eventually asked if he understood and agreed to the terms of his release, which includes a $500,000 unsecured bond and a ban on travel outside of California.

Yee is scheduled to appear for a follow-up detention hearing at the San Francisco Federal Courthouse on Monday, March 31st at 9:30am. Jackson is scheduled for 11am that same morning. Chow will have to wait until Tuesday, April 1st. Yee’s attorney has indicated that Yee will plead “not guilty.”

As for the complaint affidavit, the pretty compelling account was written by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel Pascua. After listing the targets of the complaints and the statutes allegedly violated, Pascua begins to describe the investigation.

At some point in the last five years, an undercover FBI agent (herein “UCE 4527”) was introduced to a high-level member of the [Chee Kung Tong]. As a results of this introduction, in may 2010, another undercover FBI agent (herein “UCE 4599”) was introduced to target subject Raymond CHOW. CHOW then introduced UCE 4599 to many of the target subjects…during a meeting with UCE 4599, while seated in a booth in a karaoke bar, CHOW whispered into UCE 4599’s ear that although CHOW was no longer involved in criminal activity, CHOW knew of and approved all criminal activities within his organization.

In October of 2012, local law enforcement conducted raids on two locations which turned up two marijuana grow operations, a loaded weapon and cocaine in locations connected to multiple defendants. Meanwhile, UCE 4599 was laundering millions of dollars in drug proceeds between 2012 and 2014 along with purchasing weapons and drugs directly. Ultimately, Chow introduced UCE 4599 to Keith Jackson as a consultant for CKT. Jackson and his son Brandon Jackson, along with another suspect, allegedly sold UCE 4599 multiple weapons and bullet proof vests, fake credit cards and agreed to a murder for hire scheme suggested by the undercover agent.

In his role as principle at Jackson Consulting, Keith Jackson was busy raising money for Leland Yee’s mayoral campaign in 2011 and even hit UCE 4599 up for donations in excess of the $500 maximum allowed by law. UCE 4599 declined, but introduced Jackson to another undercover agent posing as a real estate developer, UCE 4733, who did make a $5,000 donation to the campaign. After losing the mayoral race but with $70,000 in debt outstanding, Jackson and Yee again went to UCE 4733 for money and promised to call and write the California Department of Public Health on behalf of a fictional client of the agent’s in exchange for a $10,000 donation. More requests were made by Jackson of more undercover agents, with checks made out to “Leland Yee Secretary of State” in exchange for political favors.

Yee and Jackson also promised to introduce UCE 4599 to an arms dealer who could arrange to have a specific type of weapon imported through Newark, New Jersey. Yee later explained that he had connections for weapons in the Phillipines, and introduced UCE 4599 to another defendant, Dr. Lim, who could help make a multi-million dollar arms deal, including shoulder-fired rockets, a reality. In exchange, Jackson and Yee repeatedly requested more funds for Yee’s Secretary of State campaign—which they would then break up into smaller donations in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

At one point in 2012, UCE 4599 asked Jackson to call Yee and as the senator to help out Chow because, according to Jackson (in transcripts of what was presumably a warranted wire tap), “somebody, maybe the FBI, had Chow ‘by the balls.’” Yee expressed concern about connecting himself to Chow because of the latter’s puported book and movie deals, and because “[y]ou know, some poeple still think he killed that Allen Leung guy.” Referring to money offered by UCE 4599 in exchange for Yee’s support of Chow, Yee lamented “shit, as much as I want that five thousand, I can’t do that man. Shit. Fuck. Shit.”

In 2013, Yee reportedly took meetings with another undercover agent, UCE 4180, posing as a businessman who wanted to become “the Anheuser-Busch of medical marijuana” and was looking for help changing the law in California to make it easier to do business.  Yee said that only a ballot initiative could get UCE 4180 what he wanted, and that if elected Secretary of State, Yee could help with that. Jackson then met with Yee and later provided his account information so that UCE 4180 could make a “good faith” donation in exchange for “deliverables.” In June of that year, Yee, Jackson, UCE 4180 and another undercover agent and another (unnamed) state senator all met for a coffee at a Starbucks near the state capitol in Sacramento where Yee reportedly explained that “I’m just trying to run for Secretary of State, I hope I don’t get indicted.”

Whoops.

Of course, this is just a summary of the most egregious charges against Yee and the connections between Yee and Chow through Jackson. Dozens of weapons, millions of dollars and kilo after kilo of drugs - all together, it sounds like the plot to some sort of violent video game that Yee wants to protect your children from. Whether or not Yee is found guilty, with Democratic party leaders asking him to resign immediately, it looks like it’s game over.

Busted

Senator Leland Yee, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow Arrested in Federal Corruption Indictment [Updated]

This morning, the FBI searched the office of San Francisco Democrat and State Senator Leland Yee while Yee was handcuffed and driven to the federal building as part of a corruption indictment.

Search warrants are being served across the Bay Area, including the Gee Ting Kong Free Mason clubhouse in Chinatown. Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, President of the Supreme Lodge of Chinese Free Masons, has also been arrested in connection with the investigation. The infamous Chow has spent decades in prison for his role in violent, organized crime and connections to Hong Kong triads.  Of course, that didn’t prevent Mayor Lee from honoring “Shrimp Boy” for “working ‘in the trenches’ as a Change Agent” in 2012:

No details about the nature of the indictment have been released yet, but the Chronicle claims from “sources” that the raids “stemmed from a shooting about five years ago.”

Former San Francisco Supervisor and Yee campaign volunteer Ed Jew has been in, then out, and now back in jail on federal and state corruption charges since being arrested in 2007, though there’s no indication the cases are connected. Chow has publicly distanced himself from his criminal past since last being released from prison in 2003, while Yee continued serving in the state senate after losing the 2011 mayoral election in San Francisco to Ed Lee.

Yee himself has a history with legal troubles:

In 2000, Yee was arrested in Hawaii on suspicion of boosting an $8.09 bottle of suntan oil by putting it in the front of his shorts.

A year earlier, Lee was pulled over twice by San Francisco police officer who suspected him of cruising the Mission District in search of prostitutes. In both cases, police questioned Yee at the scene of the stops on South Van Ness Avenue and let him go on his way.

Yee is currently a candidate for California Secretary of State.

Update: As the search continues this morning, the SFFD was called in to help crack a safe at the Gee Ting Kong clubhouse. Investigators are also searching the Bay Steel warehouse on Davidson Street in the Bayview according to KGO’s Jenna Lane, who reports “All’s quiet at Leland Yee’s home in the Sunset.”

[Photo: John Martinez Pavliga]

For the Children

San Francisco Declares Victory Against Dark Forces of Four Loko

Just in time for you to have forgotten that Four Loko still existed, especially since any memories of drinking it are probably pretty hazy, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has made a settlement announcement with the manufacturer following his 2010 campaign to ban the drink. Chicago-based Phusion Products has agreed to stop marketing its fruit-flavored, formerly caffeinated and extra-strength malt liquor alcopops known as Four Loko to minors:

One innovative clause in the agreement obliges Phusion to monitor its social media pages to crack down on and delete posts showing irresponsible behavior. Prior entries from users on Four Loko social media sites include “My baby boy is a result of my drunken Four binge of wonder,” and, in response to the question “What Loko Starts the Perfect Saturday Night?” the answer “The one in the 17 year olds hands [sic].”

Phusion also agrees to stop “promoting the drinks on college campuses, avoiding depictions of underage drinkers in their advertising, and ending marketing practices that promote rapid or excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages.” The company will also abstain from “depicting Santa Claus in its advertisements, depicting anyone driving a motor vehicle while drinking alcohol, and depicting the consumption of their products by persons exhibiting clear signs of intoxication.”

So whichever ad agency creatives already mocked up a campaign for the Vice holiday guide with an animated takeover of Santa slamming a can of Four Loko while stumbling out of his sleigh to deliver cases to children really has their work cut out for them.

[Photo: Dana]

Heated, Moist, Flavored

Hot Air Produced by San Francisco Supervisors is Relatively Harmless, Says E-Cigarette Entrepreneur

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve an amendment by Supervisor Eric Mar to the city’s health code that will effectively ban e-cigarettes wherever smoking is currently prohibited, which includes most publicly accessible indoor areas, areas around building entrances and windows, and city parks. Mayor Ed Lee has voiced his support for the proposal, meaning the law will likely come into effect within the next few weeks.

Nicotine replacement therapy to treat addiction is an established practice considered very low-risk with ample long-term data. It’s obviously too soon to have any long-term studies on vaporized nicotine yet, but there are plenty of indications that the route of administration offers significantly reduced risks compared to smoking. And that’s not just according to device manufacturers like Mission-based Ploom. This may be a unique opportunity to significantly reduce smoking-related illness, the number one cause of death in the United States. If the goal of amending the Health Code is to reduce the impact of smoking, why is San Francisco actively discouraging alternatives?  

“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” So declares Lord Wotton to the titular protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s fable of aesthetic philosophy and hedonism, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. During the Victorian era, the cigarette became a popular marvel of industrial technology, combining mechanized mass production with a global commodities trade in tobacco to create a product that was simple, portable, inexpensive and wildly, wildly addictive.

In the novel, Gray’s friend Basil Hallward paints a flattering portrait which shows the reality of Gray’s decline, allowing Gray to indulge in a fantasy of immortality. An apt metaphor Big Tobacco’s propaganda efforts throughout the 20th century as the health risks of cigarettes became widely known.

In 1964, the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health formally declared in the United States that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. The next year, Herman Gilbert patented “an object to provide a safe and harmless means for and method of smoking by replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist, flavored air.” But it never made an impact commercially, and tobacco companies largely chose to continue the propaganda campaign.

Some product development did take place, and in 1988 and then again in 1994, RJ Reynolds introduced the Premier and Eclipse, respectively, which were an effort to create a cigarette-like experience without most of the carcinogens and external effects like second-hand smoke. They did surprisingly succeed in achieving those goals with a carbon-heated vaporizer technology, but it also never caught on among smokers.

Finally, in 2003, pharmacist Hon Lik developed an electric vaporizer that emitted a nicotine-laced aerosol for Chinese company Golden Dragon Holdings, which later changed its name to Ruyan. The first commercial models were released in 2004, and exported in 2005 and received international patent protection in 2007.

After over a century, a product with much of the aesthetic experience of smoking a cigarette but without much of the mortal danger actually began to catch on among smokers around the world.

At the time, James Monsees and Adam Bowen were students at Stanford’s Joint Program in Design. There they started what became the company and product Ploom as a masters thesis in 2005, which they presented as a prototype concept. “In 2005, my brother was living in China and he was able to pick one up for me,” Monsees explained in an interview at his office, in a building the company incidentally shares with the Burning Man Project. “I’d heard only because we were heavily researching the market.”

It was this huge box, this entire kit. Because there was nowhere you could buy refills for the thing. E-cig liquid you couldn’t buy aftermarket, either, so you had to buy an insane number of cartridges. I think the kit included like 50 cartridges. And the device was like a big cigar, it was not very good. It was the first generation e-cigarette technology that used a true atomizer, it used a vibrating mesh to create an aerosol. Everything you see know is a resistive heating coil-based technology. And it cost, like, at least $300 use for this giant kit. So we got one, and that was my first exposure to the product.

Monsees and Bowen spent two years on further research and searching for investors before raising seed capital and incorporating in 2007. The first product released by the company, the Model One, was a butane-heated vaporizer that uses disposable pods of leaf tobacco. Their next product, the Pax, dropped the pods and switched to battery power but, to be frank, is probably not used primarily to vaporize tobacco. Today you can pick up a Pax along with your favorite strain of medicine at SPARC.

But as the consumer demand for nicotine vaporizers began to become clear, the business interest from tobacco companies also surged. Japan Tobacco International, which owns Camel among other brands, announced an investment in Ploom and a distribution partnership in 2011, the same year the Model One was released. In 2013, the company introduced the Model Two, a battery-powered device specifically for tobacco.

The rapid growth of the market has produced dozens of competing brands and technological approaches. The blu disposable e-cigarette, which uses the more common nicotine solution technology, has become a leader in the American market and was purchased by Lorillard in 2012.  A wide variety of manufacturers of vaporizer parts and accessories and nicotine solutions now create hundreds of products which are now widely available wherever cigarettes are sold, as well as through speciality shops and online retailers.

That was less than ten years ago we first really saw these products at all, in any way, and now they’re so commoditized all of the sudden. That is at the heart of why these regulations are so difficult right now, and really why your seeing them at all. I think in time, in another ten years—or less, hopefully, fingers crossed—there will be a heightened understanding of the substantially improved benefits for public health in particular based on that technology.

The Food and Drug Administration first attempted to regulate e-cigarettes as medical device for drug delivery under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, but that effort was challenged in court and struck down in a decision which held up under appeal. However, the FDA now plans to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products under the provisions of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009, and “intends to issue a proposed rule extending FDA’s tobacco product authorities beyond the above products to include other products like e-cigarettes.”  The European Parliament is waiting for final approval from member states for its proposed rules, which ban advertising, require health warnings and limit nicotine levels.

Also in 2009, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a cigar enthusiast) vetoed Assembly Bill 400, which would have declared nicotine vaporizers a federally regulated drug and effectively banned them, but leaving the state free to regulate them as tobacco products in order to bar sales to minors. Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill this year to ban all online sales of tobacco products in California, including e-cigarettes, while municipal governments in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have put bans into place since the end of 2013, when long-time anti-smoking crusader and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed that city’s ban into law on his last day in office.

At public comment during the Rules Committee hearing on San Francisco’s ban, supporters argued that e-cigarettes are being marketed to children, who might try the devices and start smoking real cigarettes as a result. However, the evidence of this risk was not particularly compelling, no evidence at all was presented of secondary risks to non-users, and the amendment won’t affect marketing or advertising to children or anyone else. But it will shut the window on the opportunity to vaporize nicotine indoors, a liberty that has significantly increases the appeal of e-cigarettes to existing smokers.

Maybe the most significant data point is that only 12.5 percent of San Franciscans smoke regularly according to Doctor Tomas Aragon at the Department of Public Health, and fewer still likely use e-cigarettes, making their concerns as a constituency easy to marginalize.  Anti-smoking activists, who could once count on scientific evidence to support their arguments, seem to be leaving science behind in favor of pious zealotry just as technology may have actually come around to address many, if not most, of the negative consequences typically associated with nicotine addiction.

“I think that’s why this is particularly sad that it’s happening here. We’re smarter than this,” Monsees lamented. In his opinion of San Francisco legislators, “They’re moving quickly to adopt something that has just become a trend across major metropolitan areas.” He feels that the city could be leading the way by sponsoring research independent of federal regulators rather than following the crowd.  “I don’t think that action like these at the government level in San Francisco are reflective of the generally mentality of San Franciscans — or would be, if people were properly informed.”

He believes there will be a review of any decisions as more scientific research becomes available, and that the government bears a role in conducting that research if it’s going to make policy proactively. “Is there the financial incentive for companies like us, or major tobacco companies, to do that kind of research if it means an open opportunity to sell those products on the market? Absolutely! But are those products needed today? Are they already on the market? Yes. That’s the reality we live in. There’s been a pent up demand for these products for decades.”

Director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products Mitch Zeller was cited by Monsees as a pragmatist in this regard. Before being appointed in 2013, Zeller was employed at Pinney Associates, which describes itself as a pharmaceutical risk management group. There, in 2012, Zellar wrote an assesment of strategies for continued tobacco control efforts.  “Anyone who would ponder the endgame must acknowledge that the continuum of risk exists and pursue strategies that are designed to drive consumers from the most deadly and dangerous to the least harmful forms of nicotine delivery.”

When asked if he feels that Ploom’s products will be target for enforcement as something which “simulates smoking,” Monsees didn’t seem troubled in any case.

I don’t think that it will have a major impact on our business. I think that our products are really attractive to consumers, in particular because, in our view, internally, they don’t simulate smoking. We’re kind of an oddball in the tobacco industry. In that we’re not interested in simulating smoking. What we’re really interested in doing is understanding, from a consumer level, what people like about smoking and giving them a totally new experience that builds on the good stuff and eliminates the bad stuff. In a totally new way, totally different.

In my view, we don’t simulate smoking. But I don’t think that view has much of anything to do with if it will hurt business or not. The reality is, I don’t think it will hurt business because I don’t think people care about this law. I don’t think it’s going to discourage people from doing what they think is reasonable. It does give law enforcement a tool to enforce offensive behavior by an individual when it’s not appropriate.

Wilde describes how Gray’s wealth and incorruptible beauty—the wages of his sins accruing only on the canvas—bought him access both to the base delights of London’s streets and access to the exclusivity of polite society. On the one hand, supporters of the ban worry e-cigarettes will become as fashionable as cigarettes once were if regulations are too lax, turning back the clock on smoking eradication efforts. Whereas opponents hope smokers, who are more likely to live below the poverty line than non-smokers, might be encouraged to switch if offered less social marginalization, legal complication and regressive taxation.

Our products enable more broad use without offending people. There’s no doubt about that. Smoking, it lingers, it leaves walls and floors and desks and carpets smelling like smoke for a really long time afterwards. It’s really easy to offend people when it survives your presence for such a long period of time. And our products don’t really do that, so it’s much easier to be courteous.  And that’s what we suggest people do.

While Monsees supports consumer protection regulations, like product quality control and marketing towards children. But his belief is that the market may have already trumped any political fait accomplis. A familiar laissez fair sentiment, but then some good always does survive gilded ages, and it’s not clear which view is the more “progressive” in this particular case. Preemptively legislating etiquette with punitive measures in the absence of facts and possibly at the expense of positive community health results seems at least as, if not more, irrationally exuberant.

Hopefully the next time the issue comes up, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors can put on a science show instead of a morality play.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

San Francisco Comedians Stand Up Against Ellis Act Evictions

The usually sombre proceedings of the SF Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee meeting were livened up today by some of our favorite local comedians, who came to support a proposal requiring landlords to subsidize rents of evicted tenants for two years.

In the packed meeting room, The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s Erin McElroy presented some frightening numbers, including that of a survey of 171 people displaced by Ellis evictions, finding only 40 had managed to remain in the city. Later, the legendary humorist Marga Gomez spoke on behalf of the proposal. “I have been a renter since 1982. It’s my longest relationship.”

As for the headline set, Nato Green spoke on behalf of fellow small-time landlords, along with comedian renters Kate Willet, Matt Lieb, Nicole Calasich, Juan Medina and Sean Keane. “I can’t believe I have to follow that,” laughed the Tenants Union’s Ted Gullicksen, who took the microphone after Keane to reiterate the impact of evict-and-flip speculators.

Supervisor Jane Kim expressed her desire to see more comedians at meetings, since public comment offers everyone the opportunity to “wait a long time to speak for two minutes. And of course you won’t get paid.” Zing!

The committee will vote to send the bill to the full Board next week.

You can watch all the comments from the comedians below (be sure to catch Matt Lieb’s at 5:40 and Sean Keane’s at 10:00):

[Photo: Nato Green]

Not in My Back Alley

Parklet Scourge: Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

ABC7’s I-Team released the results of their investigation into Tutubi Plaza, a “parklet” in SOMA that has become popular with neighbors, if not people with homes nearby. Located on what used to be Russ Street between Minna and Natoma, the small, art-adorned plaza has come to provide a relatively calm oasis for the unique, colorful street life that’s centered on 6th Street. The ribbon was cut on the project back in 2011 as part of the Planning Department’s Pavement to Parks program*, with the Department of Public Works helping install work by artist Jovi Schnell who was selected by the Arts Commission.  Google Street View has images from before the plaza’s installation.

Now concerned citizens, some of whom initially supported the project, want the plaza torn out because one of the few public spaces in the area has become popular with people looking for a place to sit or lie, including drug users and sex workers. Sort of like every other public space for blocks around! Nevermind that the housing affordability crisis might be increasing the number of homeless people throughout the region (and traumatizing them in the process), or that that an influx of policing concentrated on Mid-Market is pushing criminalized populations into residential neighborhoods, or that if you want to “clean up” a corner you’re supposed to propose a high-rise development and hire an infamous political consultant.

To be fair, the parklet clearly hasn’t worked out as well as intended, but there are ways to discourage abusive and illegal behavior that would have less impact than tearing out $100,000 worth of work. Besides, having lived at the corner of 9th and Tehama, you can be assured that the presence or absence of street furniture like concrete benches matters little to someone desperate looking for a quiet alley in which to take refuge. Beat cops, on the other hand? Well, the ones stationed at 16th and Mission seem to have done a good job of redirecting that corner’s problems towards Capp and Shotwell!

Update: Gina Simi, Communications Director at the Planning Department, writes in to correct the record, noting that the agency had no role in the Tutubi Plaza project and to clarify the definition of “parklet.”

The Planning Department, in particular the Pavement to Parks program, does not have a role in this issue or this project. Tutubi Plaza is part of the South of Market Alleyways Improvements Project through the Department of Public Works, along with the SF Arts Commission and Redevelopment Agency. 

Pavement to Parks is a collaborative effort led by the Planning Department in collaboration with DPW, the MTA and the Mayor’s Office that looks to make better use of underutilized space by the installation of temporary interventions on SF streets. These temporary projects allow the City to test new ideas in the public realm and to create partnerships with local communities and help them shape their own environment.

Specifically, “parklets” are exclusively platforms in the parking lane and are funded and maintained by sponsor businesses, residents, and community organizations. Materials and designs are meant to be easily removable should design changes be desired during the timeframe of the installation.

While I can see how the connection could be made, I wanted to clarify that this is not a project through our department or programs and respectfully request that you correct the information in the article and remove the web link to our program to avoid any further confusion or misinformation.

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