Sylvia Amos saw her mother die of lung cancer in her early 70s after smoking Benson & Hedges menthol cigarettes from age 11.

Ahmad Al-Hawari owns five Minneapolis convenience stores, and his business depends on tobacco sales.

On Monday, they were on opposite sides of the debate on a city proposal to restrict the sale of menthol tobacco products to adult-only tobacco shops. While public health advocates pushed for the restrictions at a packed public hearing — arguing that tobacco companies target black smokers and young people with menthol products — Minneapolis store owners said it's the latest example of City Hall overreach and would devastate their livelihoods.

"Why take away the number one source of revenue?" Al-Hawari said, explaining that 75 percent of total sales at his Pennwood Market in north Minneapolis come from menthol tobacco products.

But Amos, president of the women's auxiliary of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, said the ban will protect children from tobacco addiction.

"I support this ordinance because it will help today's youth not suffer as my mother did," Amos said. "I support life, and I hope you will too."

The City Council heard from dozens of speakers Monday in crowded council chambers and is expected to vote on the policy in August. It passed a similar restriction on flavored tobacco products in 2015, limiting sales of fruit-flavored chewing tobacco and candy-flavored cigarillos to specialty shops. St. Paul followed suit last year.

Gretchen Musicant, the city's health commissioner, said in a presentation that black people are dramatically more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes — and more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease — than white people. Nearly half of high-school-age smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, as do nearly three-quarters of black smokers.

Despite the health detriments of menthol cigarettes, the proposed ban has attracted national pushback from tobacco lobbyists and drawn opposition from owners of convenience stores in the city, for whom tobacco sales account for as much as half of all revenue.

The proposal comes on the heels of several City Council actions with direct bearing on convenience stores: The city has banned the sale of flavored tobacco and the use of Styrofoam containers, required that stores offer at least five fruits and vegetables, and passed a paid sick leave ordinance and a higher minimum wage.

"This ban on the sale of menthol tobacco products is the last straw for us," said Clay Lambert, who has owned Metro Petro on University Avenue for 14 years.

Underground market?

Store owners testifying Monday said people will find menthol cigarettes even if convenience stores don't sell them. Customers can drive to a store in a suburb or a tobacco-only shop, or they'll find menthol cigarettes in an underground market, retailers said.

Menthol restrictions are relatively new — Chicago and San Francisco have passed them, but San Francisco's ordinance hasn't yet taken effect — so it's not clear that menthol restrictions create an underground market.

Convenience stores largely do not sell tobacco to minors, shopkeepers said, and actually provide a line of defense against underage smoking. Minnesota Department of Human Services spot checks over the past 12 months showed 95 percent compliance with the law requiring that customers be 18 in order to buy tobacco.

But Tatiyanna Morrow, who lives in north Minneapolis, said a youth group spot-checked 40 stores in the spring and found that 15 percent of them sold cigarettes to minors.

"I strongly believe that if you make this change, fewer young people would become addicted to menthol tobacco," Morrow said.

'Predatory marketing'

Representatives from the Twin Cities Medical Society, NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center and the University of Minnesota medical school all said the ban is an important way to curb smoking.

Phillip Gardiner, who works in the University of California's Office of the President's Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, said menthol tobacco has a very clear end result: the death of black people, who are specifically targeted by tobacco companies selling menthol cigarettes.

"This phenomena has led to African-Americans dying disproportionately," Gardiner said. "The punchline is the predatory marketing of the tobacco industry for these products."

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