St. Paul restricts menthol tobacco sales

St. Paul gas stations and corner stores must remove menthol cigarettes from their shelves by November 2018.

City leaders voted Wednesday to restrict the sale of menthol, mint and wintergreen tobacco products, adopting regulations that align with those approved by Minneapolis earlier this year. St. Paul officials had previously planned to only allow specialty tobacco shops to carry menthol products, but loosened the regulation to let liquor stores continue selling them and pushed back the start date.

The City Council’s decision followed emotional testimony from supporters of the regulation, some of whom lost family members to lung cancer, as well as convenience store owners who oppose the menthol tobacco restriction and say it will cost them money and force businesses to close.

“It’s exciting that St. Paul finally came to the table … It’s important to the lives our community,” said Sylvia Amos, who started anti-smoking advocacy after her mother, who started smoking as a child, died of lung cancer.

Health advocates, black leaders and neighborhood groups — who said menthol advertisers have targeted youth and people of color — prompted St. Paul officials to look into the change.

But after hearing the two sides’ concerns, council members delayed their vote for a month. Leading up to Wednesday’s vote, advocates for and against the restriction sent letters to city leaders and visited with them, distributed fliers and put signs in businesses, council members said.

“I’ve never seen that kind of neighborhood-based advocacy,” Council Member Rebecca Noecker said, calling it a “full-court press” from both sides.

During the monthlong delay, St. Paul leaders held one meeting with opponents and supporters. That meeting was insufficient to address concerns, according to a letter signed by staff from 22 markets and gas stations. They asked the city to halt the vote and have a third-party study the impacts on businesses.

Diya Shuaibi, manager of Premium Stop near the city’s Maplewood border, signed the letter. He said nearly half his tobacco sales are menthol products and customers will just go to Maplewood or a tobacco or liquor store to get the goods.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “The logic behind it doesn’t make sense. If something is bad, it should be banned for everybody.”

Others, like state Rep. Alice Hausman, urged the City Council to restrict menthol tobacco and noted the National Association of Tobacco Outlets is supporting local efforts to fight government restrictions.

“The tobacco industry does not like what you are trying to do to protect the lives of your people, and it is pouring in resources to stop it,” Hausman wrote in a letter to the City Council.

St. Paul previously restricted other tobacco flavors, like fruit and chocolate, and Amos said Wednesday’s decision was another step in the right direction. Next, she hopes to see the legal smoking age increased to 21.

Council Member Dan Bostrom cast the lone vote against the restriction, which he said will make tobacco and liquor store owners richer without solving the problem.

 

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