A pack of cigarettes costs about five bucks these days. But if you're broke, and really need a smoke, you can buy a single cigarette, a loosie, with a just a few quarters. That is, if you know where to go.
A St. Paul smokeshop owner who gave his name as "just Tony" says, "they come in and ask me, but it's not that big of a story, though. I'll just give them a few here and there," he says. "I'll sometimes will sell it. I won't give it. I'll sell it."
Tony says he never sells cigarettes to minors, and he doesn't know why people buy singles instead of a whole pack, because he doesn't ask.
Tony's surprised to hear the City Council will soon outlaw the practice, because he doesn't think it's a big deal.
"Liquor should be more of an issue than a single cigarette thing," he says. "I don't think a person that's going to smoke a cigarettes is going to go out there and crash versus somebody drinking. I think that should be more of an issue."
According to a report by ANSR, the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, selling individual cigarettes goes back to the 1930s. It was a practical convenience during the Depression when many consumers couldn't afford a whole pack.
ANSR's President Jeanne Weigum says loosies are still a bargain compared to a pack, but she argues, they're more likely to effect vulnerable groups.
"These are clearly aimed at people who are too poor or too young to buy a whole pack of cigarettes," Weigum says. "People who can easily shell out $4 or $5 aren't going out and buying a single cigarette."
Weigum says community members have complained to her about inner-city convenience stores selling loosies to kids. "It seems to be predatory from our point of view," Weigum says.
St. Paul officials say they're not sure how common loosies are in the city. Each year the Licensing Department checks cigarette sales to make sure children under 18 aren't buying them. They haven't been checking for loosies. But that will change after the council votes.
Vicki Sanders believes loosies are an insidious problem. Sanders, a St. Paul health educator focused on African American residents, says practices not tolerated in wealthier areas still plague low-income African American neighborhoods. She says selling loose cigarettes helps make other unhealthy or illegal activities acceptable.
"We have to demand and ask for the same thing for protection for our kids in the inner cities and the urban areas also," Sanders says. "If we don't start to step up to the plate, it's going to allow more and more criminal-type activities to happen."
The Council proposal banning loose cigarettes is expected to pass unanimously. At a recent public hearing, not one person testified either for or against it.
The St. Paul City Council is poised to outlaw the sale of loose cigarettes in part because federal and state law don't specifically address the issue.
City Council President Kathy Lantry says the St. Paul ordinance will clarify the law because it specifically states that "no cigarettes shall be sold in packages of fewer than 20 cigarettes."
Lantry says prohibiting sale of single cigarettes is the right thing to do because she says research shows, loosies are a gateway for children to start smoking.
"And we shouldn't be doing anything that makes it easier for kids to have access to cigarettes," Lantry says.
Lantry says violation of the new ordinance will come with a $200 fine for a first offense. In passing the ordinance, St. Paul joins other Minnesota cities including Brainerd, Young America and Mankato, and counties including Hennepin and Meeker.