Minneapolis leaders are looking to limit the sale of menthol cigarettes to adult-only tobacco shops in an effort to crack down on a product that anti-smoking advocates say makes it easier for teenagers to start smoking.
The city already limits the sale of other flavored tobacco products to adult-only tobacco shops. Restricting menthol sales is the next step, said Council Member Cam Gordon.
“This is something that we’ve been getting contacted about for a while,” said Gordon, one of the City Council members working on an ordinance that would limit menthol cigarette sales. “We were hearing from a lot of people that this is a gateway for young people into tobacco and nicotine addiction.”
Minneapolis would be the first city in Minnesota to restrict menthol cigarette sales. If an ordinance passes, the city would join others including San Francisco and Chicago that have adopted similar measures.
Other metro cities have taken steps to make it more difficult for teenagers to access tobacco products. In May, Edina became the first city in the state to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. And last year, St. Paul followed Minneapolis’ lead and banned the sale of flavored tobacco products, except at specialty stores that get at least 90 percent of their revenue from tobacco.
Convenience store owners opposed Minneapolis’ flavored tobacco regulations in 2015. Local trade groups, including the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association and the Minnesota Petroleum Marketers Association, could not be reached for comment Wednesday on the proposed menthol cigarette restrictions. Clerks who answered the phones at individual stores declined to comment.
Appeal to young smokers
Menthol is a mint-flavored compound that produces a cooling sensation, masking the harshness of cigarette smoke. Menthol cigarettes, introduced in the 1920s, were marketed as a healthy alternative to other tobacco products — a misperception that has persisted, according to the National Institutes of Health website smokefree.gov.
Menthol cigarettes, like other flavored tobacco products, tend to appeal to younger users. More than 40 percent of high school smokers in Minnesota usually smoke menthols, according to a 2014 report on teenage tobacco use from the Minnesota Department of Health.
But it’s not just young people. Menthol cigarette marketing historically has targeted groups including blacks, women and the LGBT community, said Betsy Brock, director of research at the Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota.
That group, along with the NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, worked with the City Council on the flavored tobacco ordinance, which took effect Jan. 1, 2016. The ordinance restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products, such as fruit-flavored chewing tobacco and candy-flavored cigarillos, to specialty tobacco stores and set a minimum age of 18 to enter those shops.
After the ordinance passed in 2015, the Association for Nonsmokers and NorthPoint launched an education campaign and formed a coalition of nearly 50 local organizations with the goal of getting a menthol cigarette ordinance passed.
The idea is that young people simply won’t be able to get menthol cigarettes in Minneapolis, in the same way that they’re no longer able to access other flavored tobacco, Brock said.
“Adults who want them will still be able to get them,” she said, “but young people won’t ever be exposed to them.”
A draft ordinance likely will be finished by late next week, Gordon said. A public hearing is scheduled for July 24.