St. Louis Park considers restrictions on flavored tobacco products

Council members passed around an array of flavored tobacco products during a March 6 conversation on regulating them. (Sun Sailor photo by Seth Rowe)
Council members passed around an array of flavored tobacco products during a March 6 conversation on regulating them. (Sun Sailor photo by Seth Rowe)

Cigar wraps with a chicken and waffle flavor, fruit punch cigars, raspberry cream cigars and other flavored tobacco products could be limited in St. Louis Park to a type of store that currently doesn’t exist in the city.

Councilmember Sue Sanger recommended limiting such flavored tobacco products to shops dedicated to selling tobacco products, of which there are none in the city. She also suggested raising the age for purchasing the flavored products from 18 to 21 – a move that has not yet been made in any city in the state, according to speakers at the meeting.

“They’re readily available,” Sanger said of flavored tobacco products at a March 6 council work session. “Teens find ways to get these.”

If the city can limit their access, research indicates that many young people who try flavored tobacco products will not become smokers of more typical tobacco products, Sanger said.

Ordinances that restrict the sale of such products to standalone tobacco shops went into effect last year in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cities also set minimum prices for cigars.

Bloomington, Brooklyn Center, Maplewood and Richfield have set rules relating to packaging and minimum pricing, according to a St. Louis Park city staff report. Edina is considering an ordinance related to flavored tobacco.

Considering that St. Louis Park does not have any stores that mainly sell tobacco products, Councilmember Gregg Lindberg expressed concern that limiting flavored tobacco products to such stores would create an incentive for a businessperson to open a tobacco shop in the city.

“I’d be concerned about providing almost more access by that happening in our community,” Lindberg said. “I want to be careful about the unintended consequence of what we might do.”

However, Betsy Brock, research director for the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, said, “Overall the policies have gone really well.”

Minneapolis officials had also worried about an increase in tobacco products stores, but that did not become a problem, Brock said.

She joined public health officials and St. Louis Park residents who spoke in support of restrictions on flavored tobacco at the work session.

“It’s very apparent to me that young people are smoking on the way to and from high school,” resident Michael Hindin said. “They’re setting a really bad example for the other kids going by on the bus.”

Lindberg asked if the city could ban flavored tobacco products entirely.

Director of Inspections Brian Hoffman replied, “It’s one of those things where it’s hard to, by ordinance, prohibit something entirely.”

Limiting the sale of such products is more legally palatable, Hoffman said.

In response to a question from Lindberg, Hoffman said tobacco shops would be allowed in any commercial zoning district in St. Louis Park under current ordinance.

Regarding Sanger’s other suggestion, Councilmemember Steve Hallfin strongly opposed the idea of minimum age to buy flavored tobacco products.

While Hallfin said he abhors “anything to do with any tobacco product,” he also said he is a veteran who believes that “anybody who is willing to take a bullet for this country should be able to use a product that’s legal.”

Americans who are 18 are adults, Hallfin said.

“I’d like to see a Marine come in with dress blues on and hear, ‘Nope, you’re 18; you can’t purchase that,’” Hallfin said.

Of the concept, he said, “That just doesn’t fly with me.”

Lindberg said he understood Hallfin’s point, but he said that limiting the product to tobacco products stores without raising the age limit could create a market for tobacco products stores to open in St. Louis Park.

When Hallfin asked if the city has had any issues with “kids doing something wrong” with flavored tobacco products, Inspections Services Manager Ann Boettcher said recent tobacco sting operations in St. Louis Park did not result in any incidents.

A city staff report she helped prepare indicates that a survey of St. Louis Park establishments found that 18 businesses sold little cigars or cigarillos in menthol, fruit and regular flavors. More than half of retailers in the city who sell tobacco products are offering flavored tobacco products, according to the report.

Several council members said they would like to study the issue further.

“I do believe it’s a public health issue,” said Councilmember Tim Brausen, who called himself a reformed smoker. “I’m certainly in favor of studying it more and restricting it as much as we can.”

Mayor Jake Spano said restricting the products to tobacco-oriented stores could be one of the simplest moves the city could make. He suggested the city could look into the legality of limiting the number of such stores in the city to one “so we don’t have a massive number of these popping up.”

To Hallfin’s stance on the minimum age issue, Spano said, “This isn’t going after a Marine who wants to buy a pack of Camels. This is $146 million a year in marketing that is being sold to kids, and when I’m in a convenience store, I see young adults – very young adults – picking these things up. I’ve never seen a guy in fatigues walking out with grape-flavored cigars.”

While Spano said such products are ubiquitous, he expressed reservations about restrictions on price, marketing and packaging.

“It’s getting into what’s art and what’s not art,” he said of packaging restrictions. “It’s a little more complex.”

Councilmember Anne Mavity added, “I would not want the city to be in the business of pricing these products. I want to be a little careful about it.”

Council members asked city staff for more information on the ability of the city to limit the number of tobacco products stores and the impact of ordinances in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]