Minneapolis proposes restricting sale of super-popular menthol cigarettes

According to the CDC, more than 80 percent of African American smokers prefer menthol.

According to the CDC, more than 80 percent of African American smokers prefer menthol. Melissa O'Donohue

Minneapolis city council members Lisa Bender and Cam Gordon introduced a new ordinance on Friday that would ban the sale of minty tobacco products.

It’s an expansion on rules the city adopted about two years ago that restricted the sale of all flavored tobacco -- which advocates say are packaged to look like candy in order to appeal to youth -- to adult specialty shops only.

The only reason the city exempted menthol back then was because it’s a much harder thing to tackle, says Robin Garwood, Gordon’s aide.

Newport is America’s favorite menthol brand, and the second most popular cigarette overall, claims its producer R.J. Reynolds. According to the Centers for Disease Control, menthol is the style of choice for 88.5 percent of African American smokers.

“One thing we learned from paying attention to what the industry does and from advocates is there’s a real disparity in terms of menthol cigarette use, and that disparity tends to have everything to do with the industry really targeting certain populations with advertising and marketing that’s directed right at them,” Garwood says.

Thomas Briant of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets told the Minnesota Daily that he is helping local convenience stores put up a fight. The group has printed banners for store owners to hang this week.

Another, more surreptitious way that R.J. Reynolds has tried to oppose a menthol ban in the past was to frame the issue as a matter of civil rights.

Back in January, the tobacco company sponsored a community meeting at the African American Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, headlined by civil rights advocate and spokesman-for-hire Al Sharpton. It was called “Decriminalizing the Black Community,” with a focus on the banning of menthol cigarettes.

Sharpton had been asked to host similar meetings in four different cities.

LaTrisha Vetaw, policy manager for the North Point Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis, where most patients are African American, says she attended that meeting to prevent the hosts from spreading misinformation.

“[Sharpton] was more of a prop to get people out,” she says. “They used the numbers of African Americans who use menthol as the lure. They were saying if menthol were banned, police were going to be attacking black men, if they had a cigarette police would be attacking them. … They use some crazy scare tactics all the time for these things.”

Vetaw believes race will definitely be used again as the Minneapolis ordinance nears passage. She fully expects that convenience store chains and small businesses will gripe about losing millions in sales.

These things were all said before, when the city was trying to restrict flavored tobacco, she says, and there was no economic Armageddon.

Garwood is very clear: the proposed ordinance will have no criminalizing effect on smokers of menthol cigarettes because it would only regulate sellers. Police will not be pulling people over, checking to see what brands they’re smoking.

“That’s not an argument [tobacco companies] get to make, especially when it’s very clear they are directly marketing and advertising particular products to particular racial and ethnic groups and the fact that that leads to all kinds of health disparities,” he says. “It’s like, you don’t get to give people cancer and then talk about how much you’re worried about them.”

The city has yet to release a draft of the ordinance, but a public meeting is planned for July 24.