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Statewide View: Proposal would devastate convenience stores, city's bottom line

As consumers, we are used to having a seemingly endless choice in the goods we buy. Whether we're selecting the features of our new car or deciding which color to paint our house, the cornucopia of products at our fingertips allows each of us to ...

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As consumers, we are used to having a seemingly endless choice in the goods we buy. Whether we're selecting the features of our new car or deciding which color to paint our house, the cornucopia of products at our fingertips allows each of us to satisfy our individual tastes and desires.

But the range of choice legally available to the residents of Duluth may soon shrink if busybodies in the city government have their way.

The Duluth City Council is considering a proposal to ban convenience stores from selling flavored tobacco products to adults (such products are already off-limits to minors, of course). Quizzically, city officials say the ban is not meant to deny adults from purchasing what they please but to reduce teen smoking.

If you're wondering how banning a product only adults can legally purchase will help curb illegal underage behavior, then you aren't alone.

The mayor and City Council seem to be operating under an assumption that these are flavors for "kids" likely to induce young people to experiment with smoking and become addicted. But that argument doesn't hold up. Rates of teenage smoking have fallen dramatically over the past few years - even without overreaching bans such as this one.

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There is no corresponding push to ban cheap beer, hard lemonade, or other alcoholic beverages popular with underage drinkers, is there? As a society we understand adults have a wide variety of tastes and the makers of these products are well within their rights to meet the needs of the market.

The ban wouldn't even succeed in getting flavored cigarettes out of the hands of smokers, who could simply drive to tobacco shops or outside city limits to purchase their preferred flavor of tobacco. These products will continue to be widely available (and cheaper) in stores right across the border, creating new opportunities for cigarette smugglers. Because of our exorbitant taxes, Minnesota already ranks fifth in the nation for cigarette smuggling, with more than 35 percent of cigarettes consumed being smuggled from out of state. The ban would only encourage more of this illegal activity on the streets of Duluth.

Minnesota politicians just last year allowed the purchase of alcohol on Sundays, largely due to consumer demand. Why is the Duluth City Council now moving backwards and replacing one prohibition with another?

All this debate might be moot if the proposed flavor ban concerned only a tiny proportion of tobacco products and the stores that sold them. But flavored cigarettes make up a major slice of the market - particularly menthol cigarettes, which account for 26 percent of all cigarettes sold. Banning such a popular product would devastate Duluth convenience stores, which would lose out not only on tobacco sales but on the sales of gas, food, snacks, and other items commonly purchased at the same time.

It's not just smokers and convenience store owners who will feel the hurt. All the business going across the border will mean diminished sales tax revenue for a city already struggling to meet residents' basic needs. At a time when Duluth is preparing to dip into taxpayers' pockets for additional transportation funds, how can its elected leaders justify shipping tax money to Wisconsin?

Politicians are understandably eager to curb teen smoking, but arbitrary and ineffective flavor bans that only punish law-abiding residents will do little to help. Given that smoking rates among teenagers are happily declining, Duluth should simply ensure the current laws on the books are properly enforced - without limiting consumer choice, hurting the local economy, or wrecking the city budget.

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Jason Flohrs

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Jason Flohrs is the Minnesota state director for Americans for Prosperity, which has its Minnesota office in Burnsville ( americansforprosperity.org ). He submitted this for publication exclusively to the News Tribune.

Related Topics: HEALTHRETAIL
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