MINNEAPOLIS -- Menthol cigarettes are the newest battle line in the Minneapolis tobacco wars, but the fight will have to wait another week.
City Council member Cam Gordon, who spearheaded the move against fruit flavored smokes two years ago, has proposed relegating menthol products to tobacco stores that are off limits to minors.
About 70 people crowded into the chambers Monday to debate the ordinance at a public hearing. After about two and a half hours, the committee lost a quorum and did not vote. A committee vote is now scheduled for Aug. 2 at 9 a.m., and the final vote will be Aug. 4 at the full city council meeting.
"This makes absolutely no sense to me," Edward Elias, who owns Camden Grocery and Tobacco on the city's north side and Gold Medal Market and Deli in downtown Minneapolis, told KARE.
"A person who's 18 years old buying menthol, and another one not buying menthol? A cigarette is a cigarette, so what difference does it make?"
Elias says that roughly 35 percent of his sales are menthol cigarettes, but says it will affect a larger portion of his revenue because smokers buy other products while they're in his stores.
"Everything is related. I have a one-stop shop. Customers come in and buy their cigarettes and they buy some other stuff, get their groceries, get their milk."
But LaTrisha Vetaw of Northpoint Health and Wellness in Minneapolis says it's about protecting children from becoming addicted to a dangerous product.
"We want every child in this city to have a fair chance. If we can get those products out of the store that's a small piece of all these children having a fair chance."
Vetaw, part of the coalition that supports the new menthol restrictions, said she's not surprised by government data showing that 88 percent of black smokers choose menthols.
"Everybody I knew growing up smoked menthol. My father was a heavy smoker, my grandmother, my favorite uncle was a heavy smoker, everyone smoked menthol."
She said tobacco companies gained the allegiance of African American customers by giving away free cigarettes at nightclubs, check cashing businesses and even county offices where people came to seek public assistance.
"Yes, they gave away free menthol cigarettes at welfare offices," Vetaw remarked.
And targeted advertising featured black actors and models, which was something new.
"People with Afros, beautiful black women, black families. People saw people that looked like them in the ads. It was something they had never seen before."
In fact, part of the pushback Vetaw has experienced as an advocate for restricting menthol has come from people inside her own community, who see that flavor as a part of African American culture.
"They say Newport is ours. I've heard people say, 'White public health people are coming in and taking this product away from us!' And I say, 'This is not our product!' I don't know how it became our product," Vetaw explained.
The store owner Elias said he worries moving menthol out of grocery and convenience stores will spark black market sales by people who can drive across the city border and return to make huge profits.
"They can go to Robbinsdale and buy menthols and bring them back and sell them in front of my store!" he said. "Why not make it one statewide regulation? Why do we have a different rules in different cities."
But LaTrisha Vetaw said she wouldn't expect to see rampant sales of bootlegged cigarettes in Minneapolis, if the council passes the ordinance.
"There's always talk about black markets, but this is not a ban. It's true there's no tobacco store on the north side of Minneapolis now, but I'm sure someone will open one fairly quickly if this goes through."
If the ban passes, it will go into effect immediately, but "menthol-related violations" won't be enforced until 2018.
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