Buying a pack of menthol cigarettes in Minneapolis is about to get tougher.
The City Council approved a restriction on menthol tobacco Friday, limiting sales to adult-only tobacco shops and liquor stores. The vote was the culmination of a community-led effort to reduce access to menthol tobacco, a product that historically has been marketed to black smokers and that anti-smoking activists say makes it easier for young people to start smoking.
“It was something that we thought we should move forward on to help protect the future health and well-being of the residents of Minneapolis, particularly our youth,” said Council Member Cam Gordon, who co-authored the ordinance.
Menthol is a mint-flavored compound that produces a cooling sensation, masking the harshness of cigarette smoke.
The restriction, which adds to an existing citywide limit on flavored tobacco sales, will take effect Aug. 1, 2018.
Convenience store owners have opposed the restriction, which they say will hurt their businesses.
About 70 people packed the council chambers for Friday’s meeting, many wearing green T-shirts with the phrase “Beautiful lie, ugly truth” — the slogan for the campaign to restrict menthol in the city. Before the vote, council members acknowledged the community work that helped get the ordinance passed.
“This was really in response to a call from a huge number of community members and organizations,” said Council Member Lisa Bender, who co-authored the ordinance.
Council Members Barbara Johnson and Blong Yang were the only votes against the restriction. Both raised concerns about how it will affect residents and businesses in their north Minneapolis wards, where many smokers prefer menthol and there are no tobacco shops.
Yang, who worked on the ordinance limiting flavored tobacco sales, said that restricting menthol “unfairly targets” black smokers, who generally choose menthol over other types of tobacco.
“I cannot in good conscience tell a full-grown adult in Ward 5 that they have to go through hoops and extra trouble to get a product which other residents in other parts of the city will be able to get without any further hassle,” he said. “There is an inherent unfairness in that.”
Johnson said she thinks it would be more effective to fight youth smoking by raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21 — something Edina and St. Louis Park did this year.
Dismay and celebration
After the vote, convenience store owners in red T-shirts reading “Enough is enough” gathered outside the council chambers. The group organized against the restriction, which store owners say will cut into profits at a time when they’re already dealing with the city’s flavored tobacco restriction, new paid sick leave requirements and the upcoming $15 minimum wage.
Richard Bohnen, who owns two gas stations in south Minneapolis, didn’t attend the meeting Friday but has fought against the restriction. He said his family has been in business on the corner of 60th Street and Penn Avenue S. for 41 years. He knows he can keep the doors open, he said, but he’s not sure he wants to.
“It’s an absolute joke being in Minneapolis right now,” he said. “Between the $15 an hour, the paid sick leave … I don’t want to be there.”
Outside the council chambers after the vote, supporters of the restriction were all smiles.
“This means a lot to me. This is going to be a drastic change,” said Tatiyanna Morrow, 20, who said she’s been working on tobacco education for young people since February. “I feel like this is not only going to be a change for our generation, but for every generation that comes after me.”
There’s still more work to do, said LaTrisha Vetaw, policy manager for NorthPoint Health and Wellness. The group is planning to provide support for menthol smokers who want to quit, she said, and is going to start working on raising the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21.
Still, for that moment, Vetaw was ready to celebrate.
“We did it!” she said. “I’m going to sleep well tonight.”