City weighing new restrictions on flavored tobacco

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City leaders are considering new restrictions on flavored tobacco products in an effort to deter youth from using tobacco.

The proposed amendments to the city’s tobacco ordinance would limit sales of flavored tobacco products to tobacco shops, require tobacco shops to prohibit entrance to underage customers, and set a minimum price for all cigar products. The minimum price would be $2.60 per cigar.

The cheap prices of flavored cigars make them an appealing alternative to cigarettes for young people. A flavored cigarillo typically costs around 99 cents.

Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said flavored cigars are widely available through the city, cheap to purchase and marketed to young people.  

“These flavored products look like candy,” she said.

According to the 2014 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey, cigar and smokeless products have become more popular among young people. The percentage of high school tobacco users who smoked only cigar products in the past 30 days when surveyed rose from 10.9 percent in 2011 to 15.8 percent in 2014.

Several health professionals and members of the Minneapolis Youth Congress testified in support of the proposed ordinance amendments at a public hearing at City Hall on Monday, arguing the policy change will go a long way in preventing tobacco use among young people — particularly among youth of color.

Some gas station owners objected to the proposed changes and said they do a great job of complying with laws banning tobacco products from being sold to underage costumers. The restrictions would have a negative impact on their businesses, they said, since a significant portion of their revenue comes from selling tobacco products.

The City Council’s Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee is scheduled to vote on the proposed ordinance changes on June 22.

Breathe Free North, a community group working on preventing tobacco use, found flavored cigarillos and flavored smokeless tobacco in 83 percent and 53 percent of stores, respectively, in North Minneapolis, according to a report presented to the Council committee.

Many youth have also reported being able to buy the tobacco products despite being under age 18.

The flavored tobacco products covered by the proposed ordinance amendments include little cigar and cigarillo products, e-juice, shisha, smokeless tobacco and other non-cigarette tobacco products.

Menthol-flavored versions of the products, however, would be exempt from the restrictions.

The change would mean that the number of places in the city where people could buy flavored tobacco products would go from about 355 places (gas stations, corner stars, bars, etc.) to 15 tobacco product shops, according to the report presented to the Council.

If approved by the full Council, the restrictions would go into effect Sept. 1.