Convenience stores, gas stations and a prominent tobacco company are fighting a Minneapolis proposal to severely restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products.
The measure would limit sale of flavored tobacco products to just under two dozen specialty tobacco shops in the city — down from more than 360 locations authorized to sell them now. It would apply to flavored cigars, smokeless tobacco, hookah shisha and e-cigarette juice, but not their mint and menthol varieties.
The measure won passage from a key City Council committee Monday and is expected to get a final vote July 10.
The proposal has stoked opposition from convenience store owners, who have testified and sent letters to City Hall. Altria, parent company for Philip Morris USA, dispatched lobbyists to meet with the council sponsors. In addition to the new restrictions, it would set a minimum price for cigars at $2.60.
The federal government banned flavored cigarettes in 2009, but other products continue to be sold with fruity flavors like grape, cherry and pineapple. City officials say that makes them more appealing to underage teens, who are getting a hold of them despite existing age restrictions — according to a study of local youth.
“It truly seems that this is something where frankly there has been a hole in our national regulatory system,” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said during a hearing Monday.
Cigar price minimums have already been set in Bloomington, St. Paul, Maplewood and Brooklyn Center. But Minneapolis would be the first city in Minnesota to ban flavored products at most locations, following similar bans in New York City and Providence, R.I.
Representatives for Bloomington-based Holiday sought to exempt gas stations from the new restriction, arguing that their company already electronically verifies the identification of customers purchasing tobacco. “While some may say these other flavored products represent only 5 percent of your tobacco revenue, that actually represents tens of thousands of dollars annually that a store will lose in lost sales,” Steve Rush, Holiday’s director of government relations, told the city’s health, environment and community engagement committee.
In response, city staff pointed to data showing that gas stations accounted for roughly 25 percent of recent failures in underage tobacco-sales compliance checks by both the city and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. Data compiled by the city’s businesses licensing department show that overall, however, typically only between 6 and 7 percent of more than 350 annual city tobacco compliance checks result in failures.
About 40 percent of convenience store sales can be attributed to tobacco products, the owner of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, Steve Williams, told a panel earlier in June. Most of that is cigarettes; just under 5 percent of sales come from non-cigarette tobacco products, according to convenience store industry data.
The proposal has nonetheless attracted the attention of at least one major tobacco company. The co-authors of the ordinance, Council Members Cam Gordon and Blong Yang, both said lobbyists for Altria met with them about the measure.
“I think [their argument] went both ways. One was, ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” Yang said in an interview. “And the other was ‘if you’re going to limit it to tobacco shops only, why don’t you just ban the whole thing and not let anybody sell it?’ ”
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, said the ordinance paints with too broad a brush, cutting off all consumers rather than ensuring it merely isn’t sold to people underage. Altria’s holdings include Phillip Morris USA, as well as the manufacturers of Skoal, Copenhagen and Black & Mild products.
“We think it’s unfair to those adult tobacco consumers — indeed our costumers — who may prefer such flavor varieties in those categories,” Sutton said.
He added that more appropriate approaches would be to ensure the product is kept behind the counter and that clerks are verifying customer ages.
Jeanne Weigum, president of the Association for Non-Smokers, said while it is common for tobacco manufacturers to lobby at the Legislature, the recent activities at City Hall have been unusual.
“I have not seen that at the local level. … For them to see this as that important, I mean we’ve really definitely hit them where they care deeply,” Weigum said.