Minneapolis is on track to have the highest government-mandated minimum price for cigarettes in the nation after the City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a $15-per-pack floor, before taxes.

In addition, the changes approved Thursday, which also set minimum prices for cigars, pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco, ban all discounts or coupons on tobacco products.

That's no small thing; the highest retail prices in the city are already reaching $13.50, but coupons frequently allow smokers to pay far less — a targeted marketing maneuver that anti-smoking advocates say keeps adult smokers hooked and lowers the barrier for younger people to start.

Vaping, lozenges, gum and other ways to take nicotine without tobacco are unaffected — although a number of council members said they want to take on e-cigarettes in the future.

The changes were hailed by anti-smoking advocates and public health officials as a way to reduce smoking, which is addictive and leads to a host of health problems, from impotence to deadly ailments such as lung cancer and heart disease.

But some smokers and community leaders have criticized the minimum price as so stiff as to effectively punish poor smokers — which they said will disproportionately affect people of color.

Several City Council members are ex-smokers, or still struggling with nicotine addiction or have seen the ravages of smoking on loved ones, and emphasized that, while they sympathized the hardship of the higher cost, a painful transition away from the era of smoking was unavoidable.

Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw, who has been spearheading the new regulations for more than a year, said her sister suffered an aneurysm as result of smoking, but the rising price was a major motivator for her to quit.

"When I raise the price of cigarettes knowing that it will help people like my sister quit smoking, I'm proud of this," she said.

Cigar lounge grandfathered?

The changes to the city's tobacco regulations, which are expected to be signed by Mayor Jacob Frey, also accommodate — and crack down — on what city officials believe is the only so-called cigar lounge, which for years has allowed patrons to smoke indoors via a legal gray area under the state's clean indoor air laws.

Under the state law, tobacco retailers are allowed to let patrons "sample" their product. That's led to one well-known business — Anthony's Pipe & Cigar Lounge in Uptown — to allow people to sink back into chairs and spend hours socializing and smoking.

Council Member Aisha Chughtai, who represents Uptown, carved out a grandfather clause specifically tailored to Anthony's that will allow it to continue to let customers to light up.

However, its days of unfettered smoking indoors will be numbered under the new regulations approved Thursday. They outlaw sampling of any smoking tobacco — puffing away — for more than 15 minutes in a "single visit" starting Dec. 1.

Vetaw, who has pushed for the new regulations for more than a year, also sought to prohibit any "seating or lounge" for customers sampling. Combined with the time limit, that could have effectively stopped Chughtai's effort to grandfather Anthony's.

Council Member Robin Wonsley persuaded a 9-4 majority on the council to remove the seating ban based on "accessibility concerns."

In other words, Anthony's can continue doing what it's doing until Dec. 1, when it will have to limit patrons' puffing to essentially one stogie.

How the minimums will work

The $15 minimum — at least $15.74 after state taxes — would be a new high, surpassing the $10-per-pack minimum enacted by St. Paul in 2021 and New York City's $13 minimum, although actual prices are often higher in high-cost cities like New York and Chicago.

A four-pack of cigars would also be $15, as would a tin of chewing tobacco.

The extra money would not be a tax, but simply a mandatory minimum price. The retailer would keep the extra money. The reasoning, officials have said, is that the extra money could soften the blow from any decrease in sales for retailers.