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Duluth clamps down on flavored tobacco sales

This is a selection of some of the flavored tobacco products for sale at the Short Stop station on Woodland Avenue. Bob King /

Flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, will be removed from the shelves of Duluth’s grocery and convenience stores within 120 days.

The Duluth City Council voted 7-2 Monday night to restrict sales of flavor-infused tobacco products to adults-only smoke shops, after listening to lengthy testimony both from supporters and opponents of the new rules.

Blue Cross Blue Shield reported in 2017 that each year smoking results in the loss of 6,000 lives in Minnesota, and the society spends $3.19 billion to treat the diseases caused by smoking — the equivalent of $593 for every resident in the state.

Mary Owen, a health care provider for fellow Native Americans, said she has seen firsthand the ravages of smoking.

“As many of you know, Minnesota native people live 10 years less than white people in this state. We have two times the rate of lung cancer of white people in the state, 1.3 times the rate of cardiovascular disease and lower respiratory disease. We also know that we, of all populations, smoke more than anyone else, and we quit less. So we know we’re so heavily affected by tobacco, and yet we are the population, along with African Americans, that are targeted,” she said.

Tonya Sconiers, the principal of Denfeld High School, said: “The facts are the facts. Youth who smoke menthol are absolutely more dependent than those who are non-menthol users. Menthol users get more nicotine in every puff and have a harder time quitting. For decades the tobacco industry has targeted youth, truly luring them into what will most likely become a lifetime addiction. Their shameless marketing to African Americans has resulted in 88 percent of African American smokers using menthol, compared to the overall rate of 25 percent.”  

On behalf of Holiday Station Stores, Joe O’Connor suggested the council table the ordinance and said he would be open to keeping menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products out of public view, so young people would not see them on display. “But don’t restrict us from selling them. We can keep kids from seeing them, but I’d hate to see those tax dollars and sales go to neighboring cities and neighboring states,” he said.

Andy Verhel, owner of the Piedmont Milk House, suggested the city consider simply raising the minimum age at which young people can buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, and allowing convenience stores to continue to compete with smoke shops.

At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Barb Russ, said he hasn’t been surprised by the emergence of tobacco interests to oppose the restrictions.

“It’s easy to see why the tobacco corporations are fighting so hard to oppose this ordinance. It’s because menthol literally soothes the throat to make it easier for people to start smoking,” he said.

Sipress expressed sympathy for local convenience store operators but not for a tobacco industry that has tried to influence the local debate about how to regulate its products.

“It’s a multi-million dollar industry whose entire business model depends upon addicting young people to a product that will eventually kill them,” he said.

Councilors Jay Fosle and Noah Hobbs voted against the ordinance, both expressing concerns that it unfairly shifted business away from convenience stores to the advantage of a half-dozen local smoke shops.

“I agree with the intent. However, I do have concerns about it creating an unlevel playing field,” Hobbs said.

In passing the ordinance Monday, Duluth followed in the footsteps of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which both voted last year to disallow the sale of menthol cigarettes at convenience stores. Those two cities restrict sales of flavored tobacco to liquor stores and adults-only smoke shops.

In other business, the council:

  • Approved an ordinance change that will enable local taxi cab companies to have their vehicles inspected and cleared for service by any mechanic certified by the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence
  • Approved an additional $27,480 to complete the final design of a new Nordic ski trail at the base of Spirit Mountain
  • Authorized the city to accept a $300,450 state grant to purchase about 16 acres of undeveloped land from the Duluth Public School District, expanding the footprint of Hartley Park
Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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