A year from now, menthol tobacco products could be gone from convenience store shelves in Minneapolis.
A citywide limit on menthol tobacco sales is closer to becoming city policy, after a City Council committee on Wednesday approved restricting sales to adult-only tobacco shops and liquor stores. Pending approval from the full council on Friday, the restriction will take effect Aug. 1, 2018.
The ordinance is an effort to curb access to a product that historically has been marketed to black smokers and that anti-smoking advocates say makes it easier for young people to start smoking. Menthol is a mint-flavored compound that produces a cooling sensation, masking the harshness of cigarette smoke.
“This is a small policy change that we can make that ensures that in 20 years, we don’t have even more stark health disparities than we do today,” said Council Member Lisa Bender, who co-authored the ordinance.
The proposal has drawn opposition and lobbying resources from retailers and tobacco companies, which have appealed to the community by predicting that an underground tobacco market will emerge and that menthol smokers — who are disproportionately black — will be criminalized.
Chicago and San Francisco have approved menthol tobacco restrictions, but they’re relatively new, so the long-term effects are not clear.
In a letter to council members, advocates for restricting menthol — including DFL legislators Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis and Rep. Rena Moran of St. Paul — said “the African American community is united behind the menthol restriction.”
“Our community has been relentlessly targeted by the tobacco industry with menthol cigarette marketing for decades,” the letter said. “It is time for us to break this cycle for the next generation.”
Minneapolis already limits sales of flavored tobacco products, such as fruit-flavored chewing tobacco and candy-flavored cigarillos. The menthol proposal would add menthol, mint and wintergreen to the list of restricted flavors.
An early version of the ordinance would have limited sales to tobacco shops and would have taken effect immediately.
In response to concerns from business owners, Council Member Andrew Johnson introduced an amendment Wednesday that added liquor stores to the places where menthol sales would be allowed.
Council Member Cam Gordon, also a co-author of the ordinance, directed city staff members to start enforcing the restriction in 2018 to give businesses time to make the transition.
Convenience store owners and the groups lobbying for them say it’s not enough. Thomas Briant, who has lobbied against the restriction on behalf of the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers, said in a statement Wednesday that more than 250 convenience stores and corner markets in Minneapolis would be affected by the menthol restriction.
“The action today by the Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee to also exempt liquor stores from the menthol sales ban is a further attempt at picking winners and losers among the city’s retailers,” he said.
Kevin Aldwaik, who owns Webber Mart in north Minneapolis’ Webber-Camden neighborhood, said the restriction is “really putting the little guy at a disadvantage.”
Aldwaik said he supports the idea of making tobacco products less accessible, and he supported the restriction on other flavored tobacco products. But he thinks it should be done in a different way — maybe by raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, like Edina and St. Louis Park did this year.
“I feel like we’re looking like the villain right now, as the small business owners,” he said. “I hate that I’m working with big tobacco on this, but at this point, I honestly feel that my arms are twisted.”