Saint Paul city officials have renewed their battle to keep tobacco out of the hands of children and people of color with new restrictions on the sale and marketing of cigarettes, e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco products. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed restrictions at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 20.

The restrictions would create a separate tobacco shop license for stores where 90 percent or more of the sales are tobacco products. A separate tobacco sales license for convenience, grocery and liquor stores would also be established. The city would cap the number of tobacco shop licenses at 25. Tobacco sales licenses would be capped at 150.

Saint Paul has about 190 stores that are currently licensed for tobacco sales. Thirty-nine of those licensees are predominantly tobacco shops. The others are convenience, grocery and liquor stores. These shops and stores would not lose their licenses under the proposed caps, but new licensees would have to fit under those caps.

A minimum distance requirement of one-half mile between tobacco shops would also be created under the ordinance. Liquor stores could no longer sell menthol and other flavored tobacco products. A pack of cigarettes would have a minimum price of $10, and discount coupons for tobacco products would be banned.

The penalties for license holders who sell tobacco to underage customers or who sell flavored tobacco products would be increased from $200 to $500 for a first offense, from $400 to $1,000 for a second offense, and from $800 to $2,000 for a third offense. The licenses of repeat offenders could be suspended or revoked.

The coalition questioned whether underage youths take advantage of tobacco sales promotions or coupons. “This simply does not happen,” it stated. “All this provision will do is raise the cost of legal tobacco products to Saint Paul residents.”

The proposed restrictions have been hailed by health care providers and anti-tobacco activists, including the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota (ANSR). They have raised red flags for the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association and the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers.

The coalition—which is made up of the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association, Minnesota Retailers Association, Minnesota Grocers Association and the Minnesota Petroleum Marketers Association—has challenged the restrictions under the Minnesota Unfair Cigarette Sales Act. The 1960s statute established minimum cigarette price markups to prevent predatory pricing and the sale of cigarettes as a loss leader in retail stores.

“A city should not engage in what is essentially price fixing,” a coalition letter stated. “To our knowledge, the city of Saint Paul does not fix the prices of any other consumer products, and neither should it start to do so with cigarettes.”

The coalition questioned whether underage youths take advantage of tobacco sales promotions or coupons. “This simply does not happen,” it stated. “All this provision will do is raise the cost of legal tobacco products to Saint Paul residents.”

“Everyone I know has bought something they didn’t need, and in the end didn’t want, because the price was just too good to pass up,” said Jeanne Weigum, president of ANSR-Minnesota and a Merriam Park resident. “Saint Paul’s ordinance will stop that kind of predatory pricing by eliminating tobacco coupon redemption and setting a minimum price on cigarettes and chewing tobacco.”

ANSR-Minnesota has worked on the proposed ordinance for the past few years. According to the organization, 2018 tobacco companies spent $9.1 billion in 2018 to reduce the price of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco for consumers. “Coupons and discounts undermine smokers’ attempts to quit and hook young people into starting,” ANSR stated. “In Minnesota, adult smokers who redeemed cigarette coupons were less likely to quit smoking than those who didn’t use coupons.

“Price is the most effective tool in reducing smoking in adults and preventing youth from starting,” ANSR stated. “Tobacco is a leading cause of premature, preventable death in Minnesota. Despite Minnesota’s progress in reducing smoking among youths and adults, an increasing percentage of youths are still using many of these products.”

“Everyone I know has bought something they didn’t need, and in the end didn’t want, because the price was just too good to pass up,” said Jeanne Weigum, president of ANSR-Minnesota and a Merriam Park resident. “Saint Paul’s ordinance will stop that kind of predatory pricing by eliminating tobacco coupon redemption and setting a minimum price on cigarettes and chewing tobacco.”

The Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers wants to know whether or not the city’s previous efforts to keep tobacco out of the hands of youths and people of color have worked. “To our knowledge, the city has not provided any evidence that such restrictions and prohibitions have met the goals that the actions were supposed to achieve,” the coalition stated.

Saint Paul officials have targeted tobacco and vaping products for years. Candy products that mimic tobacco products, including bubblegum cigars, candy cigarettes and Big League Chew gum, were banned in 2009. Flavored tobacco products were banned from convenience stores in 2016. The minimum age to buy tobacco products was raised from 18 to 21 in 2019. That year the City Council also set the tobacco license cap at 242.

Some of the measures have backfired. A 2017 city ordinance that restricted the sale of menthol and flavored tobacco products to tobacco-only shops resulted in the renovation of many convenience stores with separate tobacco-only spaces. Twenty new licenses were granted to tobacco-only shops after the ordinance passed, and by late 2019 the city had 42 tobacco shops.

The Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers wants to know whether or not the city’s previous efforts to keep tobacco out of the hands of youths and people of color have worked.

“To our knowledge, the city has not provided any evidence that such restrictions and prohibitions have met the goals that the actions were supposed to achieve,” the coalition stated. “Does the city have any empirical evidence or data that show the goals of the restrictions and prohibitions have been accomplished? If not, then the City Council should pause and determine what the impact of the restrictions and prohibitions on retailers and the public have been to date.

“The City Council needs to be accountable to the retailers and residents of the city that the ordinances it enacts have the intended impact,” the coalition stated. “In the absence of such evidence, any further amendments to the tobacco licensing ordinance should be postponed.”

— Jane McClure

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