The sale of flavored cigars in convenience stores could soon come to an end in Minneapolis, where city officials are mulling the state’s first ban on the products at most traditional locations to curb youth tobacco use.
Anti-smoking advocates and small retailers squared off at a packed City Council hearing Monday over a proposal that would restrict sales of flavored tobacco products from more than 300 allowed locations to just under two dozen specialty tobacco shops. Similar bans have been enacted in New York City and Providence, R.I.
A council committee delayed a vote on the proposal, which targets flavored cigars, smokeless tobacco, shisha for hookahs and e-cigarette juice — but excludes menthol flavors. It would also set a minimum price on all cigars at $2.60 — echoing measures passed in Bloomington, St. Paul, Maplewood and Brooklyn Center.
Supporters said low-cost flavored cigars, sold under brands like White Owl and Swisher Sweets, are especially harmful because they entice young people to start smoking. A recent study of 530 underage youth in north Minneapolis found that more than half of the 313 who had used tobacco reported at one point smoking a cigar or cigarillo.
“Luring people to an addictive product with cheap prices and candy flavors before they’re old enough to know better doesn’t … give kids much choice,” testified Latrisha Vetaw of Northpoint Health and Wellness Center. Some of the non-tobacco flavors mentioned in the ordinance include chocolate, honey and vanilla, as well as fruits, herbs and candy.
City records show that 362 businesses are currently authorized to sell tobacco products in Minneapolis, though about a quarter of them are bars that largely sell cigarettes. The proposal would limit flavored tobacco sales to approximately 21 “tobacco products shops,” which generate 90 percent of their revenue from tobacco-related sales. It also clarifies that customers must be 18 to enter those stores.
Convenience store owners at Monday’s hearing challenged the necessity of the change, noting that it is already illegal for them to sell tobacco to minors. City records show that out of more than 350 undercover compliance checks each year, only about 6 to 7 percent result in violations for selling to a minor.
They also said that restricting tobacco sales threatens one of their core revenue streams. “Forty percent of our sales in the convenience store industry comes from tobacco. … That’s the industry average: 40 percent,” said Steve Williams, owner of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, which has several locations. “So we’re affecting the viability of a lot of convenience stores.”
Ahmad Al-Hawari, who owns four convenience stores around the city, said while flavored cigars account for less than 5 percent of their business, the change could result in lost customers.
“A customer will walk or drive to a smoke shop, buy his flavored tobacco as he wishes … and then he’s going to buy cigarettes and pop from there,” Al-Hawari said. “He’s not going to go back to the convenience store.”
The federal government banned all flavored cigarettes except for menthol in 2009, but did not apply the same restrictions to cigars. Cigars may also be sold individually, versus in packs like cigarettes, making a common price about 99 cents each, according to a city staff report.
Paul Pentel, an internist at Hennepin County Medical Center, said their low cost also makes cigars an appealing option for adults who already smoke.
“In my clinic, I am very alarmed by the number of patients I see who have switched to cheap cigars because of the cost of cigarettes,” Pentel said. “For these patients, cheap cigars are a missed opportunity to quit smoking.”
New York City banned the sale of flavored tobacco products in 2009, except for at a handful of tobacco bars. A ban in Providence, R.I., went into effect in 2013. The state of Maine has also enacted a ban on small, flavored cigars.
Four Minnesota cities have already established minimum cigar prices. The minimum is $2.10 in St. Paul and Brooklyn Center, and $2.60 in Bloomington and Maplewood, city staff said.
Council Member Blong Yang, a cosponsor of the ordinance change, said he was drawn to the issue after seeing in the recent study from Breathe Free North, a program of Northpoint, that children have too much access to flavored tobacco. It also appears to be disproportionately affecting minority communities, he said.
“Every single convenience store that you go to it seems has all this stuff right in front of people, basically,” Yang said. “And it’s screaming for people to buy it because it’s there.”
The council’s health, environment and community engagement committee is expected to vote on the measure in two weeks, with a final vote before the full council possible in July.