MINNEAPOLIS - Menthol flavored cigarettes will be pushed out of grocery stores and convenience marts in Minnesota's largest city, beginning a year from now.
The Minneapolis City Council Friday voted to restrict the sales of menthol flavored tobacco products to liquor stores and tobacco shops effective Aug. 1, 2018. Proponents say it's an effort to limit the places where children can see adults purchasing those highly addictive products.
"This win today is huge. I think we’ll see the numbers in smokers decrease, particularly in the African American community," LaTrisha Vetaw of NorthPoint Health and Wellness, who co-chaired the Beautiful Lie Ugly Truth campaign, told KARE.
Vetaw was part of a large contingent of supporters who packed the city council chambers wearing menthol-green tee shirts. She cited data showing 80 percent of Black smokers prefer menthol flavored tobacco products, which is due in part to generations of targeted marketing efforts.
"The numbers of people who use menthol products on North Side are higher, and the number of people who die related to tobacco deaths are higher on the North Side."
Currently menthol cigarettes are available at 318 retail outlets in Minneapolis, according to the city staff. The new restrictions will lower that to 47 locations, including 23 liquor stores and 23 tobacco shops inside city limits.
"We've found that when you don’t smoke by the age of 24, it’s almost certain you’re never going to get addicted and you’re never going to get started, and I think the tobacco industry knows this," City Council Member Cam Gordon, who spearheaded the effort at City Hall, remarked.
Gordon also led the successful effort two years ago to place similar restrictions on fruit and candy flavored cigars and cigarillos, which weren't covered by a national rules on fruity cigarettes.
"I don’t know about your childhood, but there was always this sense that part of being a grownup is smoking, part of being a grownup is buying a pack of cigarettes at the local store."
Opponents of the change donned red shirts with the slogan "Enough is Enough" on them, reflecting frustration with other recent actions affecting smaller businesses, including sick leave, minimum wage and a ban on Styrofoam takeout containers.
"These stores offer not only tobacco. They offer faxing, MoneyGram, food services, and other amenities that makes them a necessity for the neighborhood, not just purchasing tobacco," Ebani Butler, one of the opponents, told KARE.
"You can't legislature morality. People will find a way to get menthol products."
Much of the pushback has come from convenience store owners on the city's north side, which has the highest concentrations of African American residents and menthol smokers.
"This needs to be done on a statewide basis, or regionally in partnership with surrounding cities," said Kevin Aldwaik, who owns the Webber Mart convenience store in north Minneapolis.
In order to be competitive he keeps his profit margin on cigarettes at the lowest level allowed by the State. But Aldwaik says those customers buy a lot of other products when they stop by his store.
He worries about losing his loyal customers to competitors in bordering cities.
"The same bus line outside my door can take my customers to a Holiday store in Brooklyn Center."
Aidwaik said he supports limiting access to menthol cigarettes because he too is addicted to them, but he'd prefer restrictions on store displays or raising the minimum smoking age to 21.
"My store is by a high school and I check IDs all year long. By graduation day it breaks my heart; some kids come in and drop their ID on the counter and say, 'Kevin, now you can't say no to me. You've got to sell to me'."
The two dissenting members of the council, Blong Yang and Barb Johnson, both expressed support for the concept of restricting menthol. But they sided with business owners like Aldwaik, out of concern they'll be disproportionately harmed by the new rules.