Brooklyn Center is trying to cut down on young people’s use of “little cigars” by jacking up prices on the sweet-tasting mini-stogies.
Over vendor objections, the city has adopted a new tobacco ordinance that raises the price on little cigars to at least $2.10 each if sold in less than five-packs. The rules kick in June 7.
The city is the first in Minnesota to adopt an ordinance aimed at reducing use of little cigars, which often sell for less than $1, said Emily Anderson of the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota. Similar ordinances have been adopted by cities in other states.
The council unanimously approved the tobacco rules after hearing results of the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey. It showed that at Brooklyn Center High School, about 37 percent of 12th-grade boys and 20 percent of those in 11th grade reported using little cigars, while cigarette smoking is down. Most students surveyed said their cigars came from city convenience stores, said Council Member Dan Ryan.
“We believe more Brooklyn Center youth are using little cigars, because of the low price, as a substitute for cigarettes that cost $7 or $8 a pack,” Ryan said. Little cigars are “aggressively marketed to youth in a variety of flavors,” he said.
The new ordinance labels little cigars, e-cigarettes and cigarettes as tobacco products subject to the rules.
The rules derive from guidelines developed in 2010 by the League of Minnesota Cities. League officials know of no other city that has set a minimum price for little cigars.
This week, local tobacconist Mike Wazwaz and an official of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) appeared before the City Council to ask members to rescind the price hike for little cigars, also called cigarillos. Wazwaz, owner of the Royal Tobacco shop, said the $2.10 price will send his customers to nearby cities. He said that he doesn’t want to lose little-cigar revenue, which accounts for about 15 percent of his annual sales of more than $2 million, he said.
“For me it is just a tax on poor people,” he said. “They are the ones that buy one or two at a time.”
Asked whether he shares council concerns that young people might get hooked on sweet-tasting tobacco products, Wazwaz said he doesn’t sell to minors and if the council is worried about youth smoking, it should raise the age for legal smoking to 21.
“We don’t want kids to smoke, either,” he said. “But if they are over 18, they can buy it. Taxing … them is not going to stop them from buying it. It is unfair to make the law for all ages. A 40-year-old guy has the right to buy one cigar for a dollar.”
Randy Stout, 54, was buying tobacco last week at Wazwaz’ store. He said a $2.10 cigar means he will buy fewer singles. “It won’t force me to quit,” he said, adding that he started smoking when he was 14. However, he said he hopes kids don’t make his same, 40-year-old “mistake.”
The council also got letters objecting to little-cigar sale rules from SuperAmerica, Holiday Companies and the NATO trade group.
NATO submitted a copy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration report on the last compliance check of 19 stores selling tobacco in Brooklyn Center. NATO wrote: Not “a single Brooklyn Center retailer sold tobacco to a minor decoy when store inspections were conducted in July of 2013.”
Wazwaz said NATO and his attorneys are considering legal action to block the ordinance.
The Legislature has discussed little cigars and e-cigarette regulations, but nothing is moving this session, said James Monge, an attorney for the League of Cities. A year ago, legislators passed a law making little cigars and moist snuff products taxable at a new cigarette tax rate of $2.83, an increase of $1.60 a pack that took effect last summer.
The U.S. Congress in 2009 banned flavoring, except menthol, in cigarettes. But the law was silent on flavored little cigars, whose sales have since increased. The FDA is working to develop a scientific basis for any new rules, an official told the New York Times.
Brooklyn Center Mayor Tim Willson noted that little cigars are flavored with blueberry, chocolate and other flavors that induce young people to smoke. He said they are sometimes sold two for 89 cents, less than the price of a candy bar.
“It’s bad for kids to be smoking them,” he said.
As for retailer complaints that the ordinance will push tobacco businesses into other cities, Ryan replied: “We expect other cities will follow our lead. We all share the goals of protecting the health and welfare of our young people.”