St. Paul city leaders want to reduce youth smoking, but health advocates and convenience store owners disagree over how the city should do it.
The City Council is considering adding menthol, mint and wintergreen-flavored tobacco to the list of products that can only be sold at tobacco shops. The council will hold a public hearing Wednesday night on the proposed change, which is similar to one the Minneapolis City Council approved last month.
The St. Paul school board and neighborhood associations are encouraging the move, and a letter from the American Heart Association to council members notes that menthols invite young people to experiment with cigarettes. The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council says blacks, women and LGBTQ smokers are more likely use menthols and limiting sales would reduce disparities.
"What more evidence do we need? St. Paul has a great opportunity to reduce access to menthol cigarettes and their deadly effects," Justin Bell, with the American Heart Association, wrote to the council.
The proposed mint and menthol restriction follows St. Paul's decision last year to limit sales of other flavored products, like chocolate and vanilla-flavored cigarillos and chewing tobacco. Those flavors are now only allowed in specialty shops that get at least 90 percent of their revenue from tobacco.
Six of the seven City Council members are sponsoring the ordinance. Council Member Dan Bostrom, one of the sponsors, said the change might make it more difficult for people to buy the products, but people can easily go to a surrounding city to get them.
Abdalla Tobasi, who has owned gas stations in St. Paul for 27 years, hopes the council considers other options to reduce youth smoking.
Tobasi said he doesn't want to see kids get addicted and would be willing to lose some business for a good cause. But menthol cigarettes account for 68 percent of his cigarette sale income, he said, and most of the people who buy them are in their 30s or older.
"What you're going to do will not achieve any goals," Tobasi said.
He suggested St. Paul instead change the legal smoking age to 21, a step Edina took earlier this year. Or, St. Paul could make gas station and convenience store owners remove all tobacco advertising or have them keep products out of sight, Tobasi said.
A former agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has other concerns. Richard Marianos, who now consults for various companies including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., has told St. Paul officials the menthol restriction would divert police from more important work and increase illegal menthol sales.
"This is the last thing police need to be doing," he said.
Bostrom, a retired police sergeant, did not share his concern. He said officers could include menthol products during stings.