St. Paul is on the verge of adopting a tobacco ordinance that would put it at the forefront of efforts to reduce smoking, a well-known health hazard that is among the leading causes of preventable death and disease in the U.S.
The ordinance would set a minimum price of $10 per pack of cigarettes. But more importantly, it would prohibit the use of coupons or other discounts that often lower prices and entice purchases. The ban also would apply to e-cigarettes, which often are heavily discounted by an industry attempting to lure younger buyers with an alternative to tobacco. In some stores, a single e-cigarette containing an entire cigarette pack's worth of nicotine can be had for 99 cents.
Tobacco retailers would have to be located a half mile from one another, and the city would begin to winnow the number of outlets licensed to sell tobacco products. Liquor stores would no longer be able to sell menthol or other flavored tobaccos.
With supported by all seven City Council members and Mayor Melvin Carter, the ordinance is the result of two years of preparation and meetings. Recently, Bruce Nustad, of the Minnesota Retailers Association, urged the council to reject the measure, arguing that higher prices would hurt consumers and business owners and because "where we are today feels like a decision without a conversation."
Jeanne Weigum, president of the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota, told an editorial writer that any number of outlets already sell cigarettes for $10 per pack or higher. Regarding the need for conversation, she said, "This is a well-known stall tactic relied on by the tobacco industry. It's just a way to postpone action. None of this has been done in secret. It's all been out there, including public meetings, for two years."
The council will take up the measure next week, and they should pass it. Smoking rates in Minnesota stand at a little over 14% — slightly lower than the national average of 15.6% but far more than some states. Utah has the lowest percentage of smokers at just 7.9%. Additional restrictions will translate into lower rates of smoking — and a healthier population.
"It's about healing our communities ... allowing them to decide do they want a community that revolves around health and safety and so much more," St. Paul City Council member Nelsie Yang said recently.
Yang believes that tobacco companies continue to target underage smokers, people of color and low-income communities. The demographics of smokers in Minnesota show clearly that it's most common among those with the least education and income. Younger users have veered heavily toward vaping, with manufacturers advertising heavily toward them.
Sadly, that tactic is working. "We have kids who have gotten so deeply addicted to nicotine that they are showing up in treatment with problems you would normally see in much older smokers," Weigum said. "These things aren't aimed at adults for the most part. There's a flavor known as 'unicorn spit.' You think that's aimed at some middle-aged man?"
Unicorn spit, for the uninitiated, is marketed as a sweet blend of cotton candy, pineapple and bubble gum. "We know that price is the single most effective deterrent," Weigum said. "And the single biggest factor in motivating adults to quit."
Weigum pointed out that money spent on smoking "is going to get spent on other things. These people are not taking money not spent on cigarettes and socking it away in an investment fund. Retailers should not have to rely for sales on a product that is killing their customers."
We hope other cities in Minnesota will follow St. Paul's lead. Already West St. Paul is looking at capping the number of specialty tobacco stores within its limits.
"We'll go city by city, just like we did with 21," Weigum said, referring to the campaign that resulted in Minnesota pushing the legal age for tobacco sales to 21 in 2020. That state law strengthened a national Tobacco 21 law that went into effect in December 2019. "When enough cities have this type of law," Weigum said, "the state will recognize it as the will of the people."