City Council members Cam Gordon (Ward 2) and Lisa Bender (Ward 10) pose with supporters of a new ordinance that restricts the sale of menthol cigarettes. Submitted photo

City Council restricts menthol cigarette sales

The City Council on Aug. 4 acted to restrict the sale of menthol tobacco products to tobacco shops and liquor stores.

The ordinance passed 10–2, with Council President Barb Johnson and Council Member Blong Yang, who both represent North Side wards, voting no. Both said the ordinance would unfairly target adult African-American smokers, who are much more likely to use menthol products than white smokers.

Johnson and Yang also expressed concern about the ordinance’s potential impact on the revenues of corner stores and convenience stores that sell tobacco products. The Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers, a group representing shop owners, argued that the council should have waited to see the results of an economic impact study before acting.

The amendment of the city’s tobacco sales ordinance, co-authored by City Council members Cam Gordon and Lisa Bender, goes into effect Aug. 1, 2018. While the ordinance originally would have limited sales of menthol tobacco products to just the city’s 25 tobacco shops, an amendment allowed for their sale at liquor stores, as well. That compromise opened a path for their continued sale in North Minneapolis, where no tobacco shops currently operate.

Gordon said the idea for the ordinance was brought to him Minneapolis residents with concerns about community health and youth smoking rates.

“I think every time something came up and I said, I need reassurance from the community this is supported, there was organizing and community support,” Gordon said, adding that the list of supportive organizations kept “growing and growing” past 50 groups.

But Gordon acknowledged the support was not unanimous, noting that a minority of those who testified at a public hearing on the ordinance spoke against the change. Many expressed concerns about the potential impacts on small businesses.

“I think it’s really important for all the people who support this move throughout the city to go to your convenience and corner stores, shop there, talk to them about this, thank them for trying to find ways to make this work and consider them partners, as they have been in the past, to prevent tobacco products from getting in the hands of young people so they don’t get addicted,” he said.

Sales of flavored, non-cigarette tobacco products were restricted to just tobacco shops after a 2015 City Council vote. That action was taken in response to the proliferation of flavored cigars, cigarillos and other products widely viewed as lures used by the tobacco industry to hook young people.

That 2015 ordinance exempted menthol, mint and wintergreen tobacco products from the rules change, meaning they could still be purchased at any of the 300-plus Minneapolis retail outlets with a tobacco license. The action taken by the City Council in August removes that exemption for all outlets except liquor stores.

Yang said he found it “disturbing” that the council was acting without first measuring the potential impact on retailers, adding that his colleagues were making “hasty policy rather than good policy” in the run-up to a city election.

“I think that this ordinance unfairly targets African-Americans,” he said, noting that over 80 percent of black smokers smoke menthols. That figure, which corresponds the results of an African American Leadership Forum survey of 407 black smokers in the Twin Cities, is slightly higher than the Minnesota Department of Health’s estimate that about 74 percent of black smokers statewide use menthols.

In Minnesota, black adults also smoke at a higher rate (22 percent) than their white peers (14 percent), according to a 2016 report from the department. Only about a quarter of white adult smokers smoke menthols. But a 2014 survey of Minnesota youth found 44 percent who had used cigarettes recently smoked menthols.

Yang said there wasn’t a strong case made that the new ordinance would lower youth smoking rates.

Johnson said it would’ve made “much more sense” to follow in the footsteps of Edina, where the council recently acted to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21.

“Who we are really hurting with this ordinance are adults that are basically addicted to cigarettes, to menthol cigarettes, in our community,” Johnson said.