St. Paul aims to follow Brooklyn Center's lead on cheap cigars

An employee holds a cigar
An employee holds a cigar at Royal Tobacco in Brooklyn Center.
Curtis Gilbert/MPR News

When Brooklyn Center became the first Minnesota city to impose new restrictions on tobacco, it hit smokers who buy in small quantities.

Single cigars and cigarillos used to go for 50 cents or a dollar at Brooklyn Center's Royal Tobacco shop. When the ordinance took effect in June, stores had to charge a minimum of $2.10 a cigar for packs of four or less.

"We've lost about, I want to say $20,000 in sales a month," said store owner Mike Wazwaz, who complains that tobacco retailers aren't the only ones suffering.

"For me, it's just a tax on poor smokers," he said. "Rich smokers can afford to smoke in Brooklyn Center. The poor smokers cannot."

On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council votes on a similar proposal. Supporters say the proposal is crafted to target a specific type of low-income smoker: children.

If Brooklyn Center's ordinance is any indication, it will make a dent in tobacco sales to young smokers. Before the change there, cigars were way too accessible for young smokers, Police Commander Tim Gannon said.

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"I've seen people come in -- of age, because they're purchasing in front of a police officer -- but they simply throw down change on a countertop," Gannon said. "And they have enough change in their pocket to buy a single cigarillo. And I just wonder where that cigarillo ends up at. Does it go out to somebody who may be younger who can't afford more expensive cigarettes."

For law enforcement, limiting access to cigars can be important, because cigar wrappers also can be used to smoke marijuana.

Cigarillos are smaller and much cheaper than traditional premium cigars. They're also less regulated than cigarettes. For example, cigarillos and other small cigars come in a variety of fruity flavors -- including pineapple, kiwi and tropical fusion.

The federal government banned most flavored cigarettes in 2009, because they were deemed too attractive to children. But it made no such rule for cigars.

While cigarette smoking is declining among middle school and high school students, cigar smoking isn't. A survey from the Minnesota Department of Health found cigars are now nearly as popular among underage smokers as cigarettes. Cigar smoking rates are dramatically higher among children living in poverty.

St. Paul has required cigarettes to be sold in packs since 2006. Prior to that some stores would let customers buy them one at a time if they wanted.

The proposed cigar ordinance follows the same logic, said Alicia Leizinger, a member of the Ramsey Tobacco Coalition.

"Kids can't just dig in couch cushions for that 50 cents or that dollar that they might have," she said. "It means that they have to commit to five or six dollars to be able to purchase these products."

Business groups, however, are trying to block the proposed ordinance. Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said it won't help St. Paul kids -- just retailers in other cities.

"This creates an enormous unfair playing field where if you are on one side of a city street, let's say City of St. Paul, and the other side is Maplewood, Roseville, Minneapolis," Kramer said. "All of a sudden two retail establishments that might be fifty feet apart have different processes for how they can sell something. That's not a very effective way to regulate commerce."

Brooklyn Center's experience lends support to Kramer's argument. Taha Abuisnaineh, who owns Tobacco King in neighboring Brooklyn Park, said the neighboring ordinance change gave his business a bump.

"I've seen some new faces," he said. "Some customers, some people say, 'I used to go to Brooklyn Center, but after the increase, I switched to come over here."

Abuisnaineh estimates his sales of low-end cigars are up 15 percent or so. The Holiday gas station and convenience store chain also reports double-digit increases in cigar sales at one of its Brooklyn Park locations, while sales at its Brooklyn Center stores are slumping.

The concerns from business have a familiar ring for Doug Blanke, director of the Public Health Law Center at St. Paul's William Mitchell College of Law. He said retailers' concerns about tobacco regulations are often overblown.

"We heard this of course when we talked about smoking in restaurants and bars, and every time a community has taken on any kind of tobacco control measure," he said.

Blanke predicts that if St. Paul follows Brooklyn Center's lead on cigar regulations, other cities will, too. He'd like to see Minnesota adopt the policy statewide.