Tobacco will be more costly and harder to find in city.

More stringent regulations on the sale and marketing of tobacco products will take effect in December in Saint Paul with the unanimous vote on November 3 by the City Council. The ordinance has been hailed by anti-tobacco activists as a way to protect public health and discourage the use of tobacco products. Opponents of the ordinance believe the council is overreaching and contradicting state law.

Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker called the new restrictions “a step forward for our young people.” Other council members praised the coalition that drafted and supported the ordinance.

The measure reduces the number of tobacco sales licenses available in the city to 150, down from about 190 licenses today. Businesses that already have such licenses can retain them, but getting a new license will not be possible until approximately 40 of the businesses close or otherwise give up their license.

cigarettes
The days of buying cigarettes for under $10 a pack in Saint Paul will end in December with the City Council’s adoption of new restrictions on the sale and marketing of tobacco. This photo from the summer of 2005 indicates how relatively inexpensive cigarettes were just 16 years ago. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Ordinance limits number of tobacco retailers, regulates pricing and increases penalties for license violations.

The number of tobacco shop licenses has been capped at 25. There are 39 tobacco shops currently, and that number will be trimmed through attrition. Another change that will be phased in is a minimum half-mile distance required between tobacco shop license holders.

The ordinance prohibits the sale of menthol and other flavored tobacco products in liquor stores. It prohibits the use of coupons and other price promotions for tobacco products, and it sets at $10 the minimum price of cigarette packs and standard-size cans of smokeless tobacco.

Saint Paul regulates e-cigarettes and vaping products in the same way it regulates tobacco, so those items fall under the ordinance as well.

The ordinance increases the presumptive penalties for tobacco license violations. Selling tobacco to a person under age 21 comes with a $500 fine for the first offense (up from $200), $1,000 for the second offense, $2,000 and a seven-day license suspension for the third offense and license revocation for a fourth offense. 

Penalties have been added for the display, possession or sale of single cigarettes, menthol tobacco products and flavored tobacco products in violation of the ordinance. The first incident brings a 10-day suspension and the second incident license revocation.

Another concern echoed by individual store owners is that customers will now take their purchase of tobacco products outside of Saint Paul and buy their gas and groceries elsewhere as well.

The City Council received more than 100 comments from supporters and opponents of the ordinance.

The $10 minimum sale price has come under fire from retailers and business associations. Minnesota law already sets minimum prices for tobacco products through a formula.

“How does the City Council intend to reconcile the proposed ordinance provision with the state law?” asked the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers in a letter to the council. “A city should not engage in what is essentially price fixing. 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 of Neighborhood Retailers includes the Minnesota Grocers Association, Minnesota Retailers Association, Minnesota Service Stations and Convenience Store Association, and Minnesota Petroleum Marketers Association. It asked the City Council to study the impact of the many tobacco restrictions it has passed over the years and present data on what those restrictions have accomplished. The coalition asked the council to at least set aside the pricing restrictions and the ban on coupons and promotions.

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association wanted the ban on menthol and flavored tobacco sales at liquor stores dropped. At a press conference in October organized by the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers, business owners said that smokers tend to be people of color and have low incomes. They said the new restrictions could be viewed as discriminatory. The retailers also objected to accusations that they knowingly sell tobacco illegally to young people.

Another concern echoed by individual store owners is that customers will now take their purchase of tobacco products outside of Saint Paul and buy their gas and groceries elsewhere as well.

Health advocates hail the new restrictions.

Testifying in favor of the new restrictions were the Association of Nonsmokers Minnesota, health care providers and youth advocates. The Ramsey County Board not only voiced support for the Saint Paul ordinance, it passed its own restrictions on tobacco product pricing and use of coupons and promotions in October.

“The tobacco industry has a long history of targeting youths and minority populations through coupons and promotions, especially in low-income neighborhoods,” said Elizabeth Heimer, a public policy advocate for the American Lung Association. “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that when prices are higher, tobacco use decreases, especially among youths and low-income people.”

“Approximately 95 percent of smokers start before they are 21 years old,” HealthPartners stated in a letter to the City Council. “Tobacco use is the number-one preventable cause of death in our country and state. It costs the state more than $3 billion annually in excess health care costs, and each year more than 6,000 Minnesotans die from tobacco-related diseases. Big Tobacco uses price discounts and coupons to keep people using its harmful product. Cheap tobacco helps no one.”

— Jane McClure

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