One of the stores on Mission Street where one can purchase tobacco and alcohol. Photo Courtesy Thomas Hawk

The Youth Leadership Institute started the Tobacco Use Reduction Force with the goal of empowering young people to reduce tobacco access in their communities through advocacy, research and direct action.

TURF mostly addresses neighborhoods with high concentrations of young people and for that reason, the Mission District has been a key area of focus.

The group has done research on the density and number of tobacco outlets and advertisements in different neighborhoods in San Francisco. District 9, which includes the Mission, has 97 stores that sell tobacco, five of which do so exclusively. Surveys taken in the Mission also found that there is at least one tobacco store on every block of Mission Street between 16th and 24th streets.

Catherine Mercedes-Judge, a program associate from the Youth Leadership Institute, argues that education about the harmful effects of tobacco is not enough to promote healthy communities. During a workshop, Mercedes-Judge asked the participants if they knew about the harmful effects of tobacco use; every last participant said they knew, and yet the question remained as to why so many of their peers are smoking.

“It’s more than just individual education,” she said. “We need to have a community public health focus.”

Studies have shown that the more access and advertisements that are available in a community, the more likely people are to smoke.

When compared with alcohol, there is little regulation of tobacco retail. There is a limit to the number of alcohol stores per area and business license fees are high, while there is no moratorium on tobacco stores in California, even though many more people die from tobacco use.

Consequently, TURF advocates for tighter control over tobacco retail in San Francisco, including requiring a limit to the number of stores per area.

However, given increasing unemployment and a poor economy, some Mission residents worry that more regulation could be damaging to San Francisco, a city that already has a reputation for being “unfriendly” to business.

Faris Ara, an employee of Danah Enterprise Smoke Shop in the Mission, argues that tobacco is good business, even when he makes sure to inform any youth of the harmful effects. Ara also states that he often attempts to help the poor by offering food or reminding them of the harmful effects of tobacco, but they still keep coming back.

“I’ve worked in four different tobacco shops and I’ve never touched the stuff,” said Ara.