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Mpls. council members back curbs on minty tobacco products

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Some of the many menthol tobacco products sold at the Penwood Market.
Some of the many menthol tobacco products sold at the Penwood Market convenience store in Minneapolis.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Updated 10:15 a.m. | Posted 4 a.m.

A committee of the Minneapolis City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal to restrict the sale of menthol cigarettes and other mint tobacco products.  

An initial plan would have limited sales to adult-only smoke shops, nixing out some 300 locations, including numerous convenience stores, where menthol tobacco products are sold. 

But just before the morning vote, the council's Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee amended the restriction to allow liquor stores to continue selling menthol cigarettes and other menthol tobacco products.  

Committee Chair Cam Gordon did not offer the amendment, but he supported it as a way to ensure adults have enough access to the products.

"I know there's been conversations with many of the advocates about it so I see this as a step to address some of the concerns," Gordon said.

Critics of the restriction warn it could drive many retail outlets out of business. 

The full council will take up the restriction on Friday.  

Ahmad Al-Hawwari owns Penwood Market and four other Mpls convenience stores
Al-Hawwari, who owns Penwood Market and four other Minneapolis convenience stores, seen here on July 27.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Public health advocates have pushed for limits, claiming menthol products entice kids into smoking and make quitting more difficult. But some store owners are up in arms over the proposal.

Prior to the Wednesday vote, Ahmad Al-Hawwari, who operates five convenience stores in Minneapolis, said 80 percent of his stores' sales come from tobacco products, and seven of every 10 packs of cigarettes he sells are menthol.

"It's going to be an economic devastation for the corner store where they are an essential part of the community they exist in," Al-Hawwari said. "It's very simple math. The income won't be able to support the operation."

Al-Hawwari and other business owners shared their concerns publicly last week with Minneapolis City Council members.

Most kids start using tobacco with a flavor like menthol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also says research shows that "adult menthol smokers are less likely than non-menthol smokers to successfully quit smoking."

Raymond Boyle, director of research at ClearWay Minnesota, the smoking cessation organization funded with tobacco settlement money, said the restrictions are necessary now. 

"Menthol is essentially a bad actor in all of this and our assessment is that if we want to effect kids not starting we need to take seriously the role in menthol in cigarettes," Boyle said.

Reducing access to menthol tobacco products will make them less attractive and less available to kids and adults, Boyle said.

But critics say restricting menthol tobacco sales could backfire and increase kids' access to them. They predict a flourishing black market whose illegal players would have no problem supplying kids. 

Al-Hawwari said a display ban would be a better approach. That would mean shopkeepers could store menthol products out of sight — still selling them, but without promotion.

Boyle said he doesn't buy the argument that losing access to menthol tobacco sales will wipe out Minneapolis corner stores. He said such dire predictions remind him of fears 10 years ago when Minnesota outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants

"It didn't happen then and it's not going to happen now," Boyle said.