It was standing room only at a Minneapolis City Council public hearing Tuesday. Doctors, eighth-graders, and gas station owners quickly filled the seats. Despite their differences, they all gathered in the stuffy chamber on a sunny afternoon to let city leaders know how they feel about raspberry cigarillos.
Well, more specifically the council is weighing an ordinance aiming to reduce youth tobacco use by increasing prices and tightening restrictions on flavored tobacco products.
LaTricia Vetaw was among the supporters of putting blueberry blunts under wraps. The program coordinator at NorthPoint Health & Wellness in north Minneapolis says teenagers don't grasp the dangers of tobacco use.
"That's the thing about young people, they never think they're going to die," she said during the hearing.
The proposal looks to mitigate flavored tobacco's rising market share among teens by removing them from gas stations and convenience stores, confining them to tobacco shops, and instilling a minimum price per stogie of $2.60. Bloomington, Maplewood, Brooklyn Center, and St. Paul have enacted similar price floors.
"The two most powerful tools we have for reducing tobacco addiction are prices and smoking restrictions," says Dr. Paul Pentel, director of a tobacco dependence program at Hennepin County Medical Center.
If the ordinance passes, the number of Minneapolis stores selling flavored tobacco -- from green apple chew to the mint shisha packing hookahs -- would plummet from 355 to 15. Menthol products would not be included, however. The ordinance would take effect September 1.
According to city staff, low prices and flavored offerings are two driving factors of youth tobacco use. Tobacco flavoring chemicals are the same ones used in Jolly Ranchers and Kool-Aid, and critics say they are intentionally marketed to minors. The Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey 2014 found that high-schoolers who had used only cigar products in the past 30 days rose 5 percent from 2011.
"I don't want to see any more young people get hooked on these harmful tobacco products," one Minneapolis Youth Congress member testified.
While a coalition of groups, including Minneapolis Youth Congress, Clearway Minnesota, and Breathe Free North, donned matching T-shirts indicating their support for the ordinance, store owners also turned out in opposition.
Bobby & Steve's owner Steve Williams, who says tobacco makes up 40 percent of convenience stores' sales, is all for nicotine-free teens. But regular compliance checks and ID-scanners are enough to keep strawberry Phillies out of teenagers' hands, he says.
"Technology is our friend," Williams says. "We will never fail another compliance check."
Nevertheless, city staff cited a survey that found 56 percent of underage users in Minneapolis reported buying tobacco in stores most or all of the time.
Other gas station and convenience store owners contended that the price hikes and limited availability would only drive their business to tobacco shops or neighboring cities. One shopkeeper who sells 19 different flavored cigars argued teens would find a way to get them anyway and that the ordinance would unnecessarily harm local businesses.
"It seems like it's getting harder and harder to conduct business in this city," he said.
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