St. Paul leaders are aiming to snuff out more health problems among residents with new tobacco and vaping laws that anti-smoking advocates say would be among the most restrictive in the nation.
The City Council on Wednesday introduced a sweeping set of amendments to city code that would include setting a $10 minimum price for a pack of cigarettes and banning the use of discounts or coupons for tobacco and vaping products.
St. Paul would be the first municipality in the country to crack down on the price of vaping products, said Jeanne Weigum, president of the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota.
"It's landmark," she said. "When we're talking about an addictive product, which people are desperately trying to quit using, the last thing you want is a monetary incentive constantly put out in front of them."
The proposal would also reduce the number of tobacco licenses available in the city, stop liquor stores from selling menthol tobacco products and increase penalties for retailers violating local tobacco laws.
The measure, sponsored by all seven City Council members, could be voted on later this month after a public hearing. Mayor Melvin Carter has said he will sign the measure if it passes.
"Protecting those most vulnerable to the harmful effects of smoking is critical," Carter said in a statement Wednesday. "As we continue supporting our community's health and wellness, I look forward to the public conversation on how this proposed amendment can support our ongoing efforts."
A handful of opponents sent e-mails to council members, arguing that further restrictions on tobacco sales in St. Paul could drive residents to retailers in other cities.
"We feel as though this is an anti-consumer initiative," wrote Tony Chesak, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association.
Weigum said her nonprofit teamed up with more than a dozen local groups from public and private sectors over the past two years to develop the St. Paul policy, which draws from similar laws that have been passed in New York City and Providence, R.I.
The average price of a pack of cigarettes is $9.57 in Minnesota, according to the state Commerce Department.
"We have known for decades that price is the single most effective way of keeping young people from starting to smoke and helping people be motivated to quit," Weigum said.
She said she hopes the policy will spark similar efforts in other cities — and eventually at higher levels of government.
A few cities in California have banned tobacco sales altogether. In recent decades, St. Paul and other Minnesota cities have slowly instituted a variety of local laws aimed at curbing the use of tobacco, which can cause cancer and other health problems. The state's capital city banned the sale of flavored tobacco products at most stores in 2016 and raised its tobacco purchasing age to 21 in 2019.
Associations representing Minnesota service stations, petroleum marketers, grocers and retailers sent a joint letter to council members expressing concerns about the new restrictions on top of previous limits placed on tobacco sellers.
"A city should not engage in what is essentially price fixing," the group's letter said.
They also argued the ordinance would conflict with an existing state law that aimed to prevent cigarette wholesalers and retailers from predatory pricing practices. The law, passed in 2020, created a formula that sets a minimum price scale for cigarette packs varying by brand.
The proposed changes also aim to significantly reduce the number of tobacco sellers in St. Paul over time. Right now, 190 retailers have traditional tobacco licenses and 39 others are considered tobacco product shops, holding a specialty license for businesses that make at least 90% of their revenue from tobacco.
If passed, the city would cap the number of licenses it permits at 150 and 25, respectively. Current license holders could continue selling tobacco, but St. Paul would not issue new licenses until others relinquish theirs.
The tweaks would also prevent the city from issuing a tobacco license to a business within a half-mile of another tobacco vendor and would more than double fines for businesses selling to underage buyers.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478