The St. Paul City Council will vote on whether to limit the number of licensed tobacco retailers in the city to existing levels.
The city of St. Paul licenses roughly 240 to 260 tobacco sellers. Under the proposal, tobacco stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, grocers and other retailers would have to wait until an existing license-holder goes out of business, leaves the city or voluntarily gives up its license in order to begin sales.
The seven-member council will hold a public hearing Wednesday, and a final decision could come in early July.
The effort is the latest by the city council to crack down on tobacco sales amid widespread criticism that the industry targets youth and low-income communities of color with fruit flavors, product giveaways, billboard placement and tailored advertising.
In January 2016, the city council voted 7-0 to restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products to adults-only tobacco shops, which are open to customers age 18 and over.
The restrictions at the time included items such as apple-flavored chewing tobacco, fruit punch cigarillos, strawberry “e-juice” and other flavored “vaping” or electronic cigarette products, but not menthol, mint or wintergreen products.
Last year, the council expanded the rules.
The council voted 6-1 in November to approve new restrictions that also limit sales of menthol tobacco products to tobacco shops and liquor stores. The same restrictions will apply to mint and wintergreen tobacco products when the ordinance amendment takes effect in November.
At the time of the menthol ban, even some proponents of the new restrictions expressed concern about unintended consequences. They worried that the rules would effectively give tobacco stores a near-monopoly on menthol and fruit-flavored products, allowing the shops to spread further.
Council members at the time promised to limit their number, and the latest proposal seeks to do exactly that. “My concern was that tobacco stores would proliferate throughout the city,” said City Council President Amy Brendmoen on Friday. “At the time, we said we would take steps to prevent that from happening, and here it is.”
Brendmoen said she’s heard no significant pushback to the new rules, which could help shield existing store owners. “In a way, it’s making good on a promise to the retailers — that we weren’t taking away their product and putting it in other stores,” she said.
TAKING ON TOO MUCH?
In the past, retailers have expressed concern that the general crackdown on tobacco sales could lead to an increase in black-market sales.
“Retailers in the city have a great compliance record when it comes to denying sales to underage youth,” said Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association.
“At some point we have to look at who is getting tobacco in the hands of youth, and statistically in St. Paul retailers are doing their job,” he added. “We worry that limiting licenses creates winners and losers in St. Paul, as opposed to accomplishing any goals relating to reducing tobacco use. ”
Retailers have also expressed fear that city government is asking them to do too much at once, cutting into their bottom-line while increasing expenses. In addition to banning menthol and fruit flavors, the city council recently mandated that employers offer workers paid sick leave.
The council has considered but not yet adopted restrictions on non-recyclable takeout food containers. Meanwhile, the mayor has signaled strong support for a $15 minimum wage, which the council could vote on this fall.
In May, the Minneapolis City Council voted to raise the age for buying tobacco to 21. Proposals to do the same statewide have been presented to lawmakers at the Capitol.
The St. Paul City Council banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 2006, and the state of Minnesota passed statewide restrictions a year later.
Even candies that resemble tobacco products have raised the ire of anti-smoking advocates and city lawmakers, who say they send the wrong message to children.
In 2009, the St. Paul City Council voted to ban the sale of candy cigarettes and “Big League Chew”-style bubble gum, which is marketed to imitate chewing tobacco.
Source: Pioneer Press