Can a city legally bar tobacco companies from giving out free samples at events they sponsor?

Yes and no. State law and the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) do already prohibit the distribution of free tobacco samples in most public places—but there are exceptions for adult-only locations, like bars. This practice, known as sampling, also is permitted at private events that are open to the public, so long as it takes place in a separate area that minors can’t access or see inside (for instance, a tobacco company sampling tent at a rodeo or motor racing event).

Local governments can go further than state law and the MSA by completely banning tobacco sampling at bar nights and other locations, such as sorority and fraternity houses.

However, it is probably not possible to legally ban all of the promotional tactics that take place during industry-sponsored events like bar nights. Some activities, such as conversations industry representatives might have with bar patrons, are protected under the free speech provision of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

We have a model ordinance regulating the free and low-cost distribution of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Our model ordinance goes beyond just bars—it would prohibit sampling in all public and some private places. A local sampling ordinance can help limit the tobacco industry from introducing new products into your community as well: If tobacco companies are not able to give away free samples of new products, including so-called harm reduction products, it will be more difficult for them to sell such products. Like all of TALC’s model ordinances, the sampling ordinance can easily be customized to any California community and includes meaningful enforcement provisions.