Duluth soon could take aim at sales of flavored tobacco products to young people.
On Jan. 22, city councilors Barb Russ and Zack Filipovich plan to introduce an ordinance that proposes to restrict sales of menthol cigarettes and other flavor-infused tobacco products to adult-only smoke shops.
"We're trying to keep another generation of people from starting to smoke cigarettes," Russ said.
"This is how the tobacco companies get kids started smoking, because it's easier to smoke a menthol cigarette or other flavored cigarette than just a regular one. That's how kids get started on this stuff," she said.
As word of the proposed ordinance has spread through the local business community, Russ said it has generated what she referred to as "a lot of blowback."
Scott and Sue Hansen of Hansen's Auto Service of Duluth penned a letter to the City Council, saying: "As a small, independent, locally owned convenience store and service station, we strongly oppose this ordinance. The locally owned C-stores in this area have been decimated by the influx of Kwik Trip stores to the area, and many have already closed.
"By banning the sales of these tobacco products, this ordinance would take away another revenue stream from the remaining small independent stores and represent a serious financial burden likely resulting in more store closures," they warned.
Russ said she met with about a dozen retailers a couple weeks ago to hear out their concerns. But she said those concerns must be weighed against the public health threat flavored tobacco poses to young people.
Russ noted that African American and Native American communities have been especially hard-hit by menthol cigarettes.
On Friday, Courtney Clark, a public health and psychology student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, took part in an American Lung Association press conference designed to draw public attention to the issue.
In a statement, Clark said: "Menthol has been marketed to the African-American community for over 50 years, and as a result, nearly 90 percent of African-American smokers use menthol products. We can sit idly by and hope this malicious targeting by Big Tobacco ends, or we can take initiative to make sure that kids don't have easy access to these deadly products."
Russ said she shares the concern that minority populations have been subjected to targeted menthol cigarette marketing campaigns, but she stressed the proposed ordinance is not intended to be a paternalistic measure. Russ noted that both the Duluth Human Rights Commission and the Indigenous Commission have come out strongly in favor of the proposed restrictions.
The proposed ordinance will require two public readings before the Duluth City Council can vote on it, likely at its Feb. 12 meeting.
If approved, the ordinance would go into effect 120 days later to provide local retailers with time to adjust.
Should the ordinance win approval, Duluth would join the ranks of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which both voted last year to disallow the sale of menthol cigarettes at convenience stores and gas stations. In the Twin Cities, the flavored tobacco products are soon to be sold only in liquor stores and adult-only smoke shops.
Some other cities, including Edina and St. Louis Park, have taken a different tack to discourage young people from taking up smoking. Those two suburban communities have banned the sale of tobacco products to anyone under age 21.