New Brighton poised to increase tobacco sale age

Questions remain on flavor restrictions

New Brighton has become the latest north suburb to consider an ordinance that would increase the tobacco purchasing age to 21 and potentially restrict the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products. 

At their May 14 meeting, New Brighton City Council members listened to almost 30 citizens present studies, anecdotes and personal reasons for and against a draft age change ordinance, which the council will finalize and then vote on at its June 11 meeting.

New Brighton would become the ninth city in the north metro to pass a Tobacco 21 ordinance, and potentially the sixth city to place a restriction on flavors. 

In its draft ordinance, the city cited a 2015 Institute of Medicine report that stated roughly 90% of adult smokers started smoking before turning 19. The report predicted that increasing the legal sale age could lead to a 12% decrease in smoking prevalence and prevent up to 223,000 premature deaths nationwide.

Following a packed public hearing, council members Graeme Allen and Emily Dunsworth said they would consider restricting the sale of all flavored products to adult-only tobacco stores. Allen was in favor of excluding menthol from the restriction, allowing it to continue to be sold in convenience stores and elsewhere. 

Council members Paul Jacobsen and Mary Burg, along with Mayor Val Johnson, were leaning in favor of solely enacting Tobacco 21 and not imposing any kind of restriction on flavored products. City staffers will amend the draft to reflect council members’ thoughts before the June vote.

 

Widespread use of electronic cigarettes

According to the 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey, tobacco use — including the use of electronic cigarettes — increased among middle and high school students for the first time in 17 years. While traditional cigarette use has continued to decline, e-cigarette use has risen 49% since 2014. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, e-cigarettes expose smokers to fewer dangerous chemicals, but are still unsafe. The CDC notes that most contain nicotine and many include other chemicals that have been linked to lung disease and cancer.

At the meeting, support for increasing the purchasing age was almost unanimous among students, parents and business owners. The idea of if and how much to restrict flavored products like e-cigarettes was more contentious.

Many current high school students and concerned parents voiced their support for increasing the legal sale age and restricting the sale of flavored products, noting that e-cigarette’s bright packaging and flavors were designed to appeal specifically to youth. 

An eighth grader at Highview Middle School noted that the use of e-cigarettes, also known as “vaping,” has become so common that it’s disruptive to the school’s normal operations.

“Students even take bathroom breaks to vape, and they’ve had to close the bathrooms in the high school because of this,” she reported. “When I get to high school, I don’t want to see my friends and classmates vaping and I don’t want to feel pressure to try it.”

 

Policy options

According to a presentation by Director of Public Safety Tony Paetznick, if the council does enact a flavor restriction, there are three primary options it could choose: A complete ban on all flavored products; a restriction of all flavored products, including menthol, to adult-only stores; or a restriction of all flavored products, excluding menthol, to adult-only stores. 

Any flavored products would also be subject to the Tobacco 21 ordinance, and forgoing additional flavor restrictions altogether is still an option. 

“The question is not if tobacco is good or bad, or if tobacco companies’ tactics are moral or not,” said Khader Safi, owner of Midwest Tobacco and Vapor in New Brighton. “The question here is: how does the city regulate the sale of these products?”

The owner of Midwest Vapers in New Brighton, noted that his store had never failed a compliance check, saying, “We are the line in the sand, if you don’t have proper identification, you don’t get served and are asked to leave the store.”

He also noted that a very small portion of his sales come from people between 18 and 21 and voiced no opposition to increasing the legal sales age.

Many current smokers who spoke at the meeting recalled getting tobacco products from older friends or relatives; multiple speakers also noted the ease with which e-cigarettes could be ordered online without proper age verification. 

Service station owners were in favor of fewer restrictions on flavored products, as their stores are open to all ages

Natalia Almendarez, assistant manager of a BP service station in New Brighton, estimated that roughly 35% of the store’s overall sales came from menthol, mint and wintergreen products, taking into account the fact that buyers of those would also typically be purchasing gas, snacks and beverages.

Dean Showalter, owner of the New Brighton Shell station, noted that there’s a Speedway directly across the street from him in Roseville. While Roseville passed a Tobacco 21 ordinance last year, it did not enact any kind of flavor restrictions. 

In voicing his willingness to restrict flavored products to adult-only stores, Allen raised concerns about the advertising youth would be exposed to in convenience stores, saying, “Let’s at least limit it to a very tight audience, without a lot of exposure to kids.”

 

Menthol and race

One of the most pointed arguments for a total ban of flavored products, including menthol, came from the African-American Leadership Forum, represented by Gene Nichols of Shoreview.

According to Nichols, the organization recently used a Statewide Health Improvement Partnership grant to conduct a study of local smoking habits, finding that 84% of African-American smokers in the metro area smoke menthol tobacco. 

“The tobacco industry spent decades targeting us by handing out Newports in black neighborhoods and sponsoring events like the Kool Jazz Festival,” said Nichols, whose brother died of a smoking-related illness. 

According to a report by the National Cancer Institute, “special tobacco products, mostly menthols, were developed and promoted originally to women and then increasingly to African Americans.”

“The long-term interest in preventing tobacco-related disease in our communities far outweighs any short-term disruption to business,” concluded Nichols, echoing an idea voiced by many that night.

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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