Minneapolis business owners strike back at proposed menthol cigarette ban

Ahmad Al-Hawwari says cigarettes -- primarily menthols -- are the only way his convenience stores survive.

Ahmad Al-Hawwari says cigarettes -- primarily menthols -- are the only way his convenience stores survive.

The war over menthol cigs has arrived in Minneapolis.

Last month, City Councilmembers Cam Gordon and Lisa Bender introduced an ordinance that would limit the sale of menthol tobacco products to adult smoke shops. There’s to be no prohibition on menthol smoking, but councilmembers hope the extra hurdle will keep more cigarettes out of the hands of minors.

About two years ago, Minneapolis banned flavored tobacco products from ordinary convenience stores for the very same reason. This ordinance is supposed to be a natural progression.

Convenience store owners vehemently disagree. The difference between a ban on flavored tobacco and a ban on menthol, according to the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers, is the loss of $50,000 per year, per store, versus $226,000.

And that’s because for some neighborhoods, menthols are what keeps businesses afloat, said Ahmad Al-Hawwari during a news conference at City Hall on Monday.

Al-Hawwari is a member of the United Chamber of Commerce, which represents approximately 100 Arab American-owned convenience stores in north Minneapolis.

“Leaders should be focused on fixing the increase in violent crime, establishing real community-based policing, and coming up with innovations to improve our declining neighborhoods instead of banning legal products,” he said. “Taking cigarette sales away from licensed, law-abiding retailers is giving our sales away to an underground criminal market.”

The group called on the City Council to wait for studies it has commissioned on the financial impact of banning flavored and menthol tobacco products before making a move.

Underlying retailers’ unhappiness is a general malaise over the many business regulations Minneapolis has imposed over the past few years, including the recent minimum wage hike, sick leave rules, and a plastic bag fee.

Clay and Mia Lambert, who have owned Metro Petro at 2700 University Ave. for 14 years, called the menthol ban their “last straw,” a looming threat that would defeat their ambitions of expanding to other neighborhoods and make banks leery of loaning to them.

“Is this the future of Minneapolis?” Clay asked Monday. “No rational business owner would continue to invest.”

Advocates of the ban, including the powerful anti-smoking nonprofit ClearWay Minnesota, are also pressing on in what could grow into an intense showdown over the minty cigarettes preferred by 88.5 percent of African American smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

During a news conference last week at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis, State Sen. Jeff Hayden, Rep. Rena Moran, and Gene Nichols of the African American Leadership Forum accused the tobacco industry of targeting black youth with its advertising. 

Yet, pushback from retailers succeeded in delaying the ordinance's progress, for now. The city's health committee failed to vote on the ban after a two-hour hearing Monday afternoon. The committee will try again next week.