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Mint conditions: Stores say menthol restrictions hurt their bottom lines

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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 on July 27, 2017.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News File

By late next year, it may be much harder to buy menthol cigarettes in St. Paul. The city council Wednesday is expected to tighten restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco, adding menthol, mint, and wintergreen to the list of products banned from gas stations and corner stores.  

The restrictions before the St. Paul City Council don't ban minty tobacco outright, but they would be limited to stores that get at least 90 percent of their revenue from tobacco and its paraphernalia. A change approved last week also allows liquor stores to keep selling menthol. The St. Paul ordinance is similar to one recently approved in Minneapolis.  

Some convenience store owners who rely on menthol cigarette sales worry they'll be driven out of business entirely. They say officials in both cities haven't appeared interested in compromises, such as removing in-store advertising and selling only to people 21 and older.  

But anti-smoking groups strongly support the move. 

  Television commercials from the 1950s touted menthols as easier on the throat than regular cigarettes because of the cooling sensation the mint flavor provides. The federal government banned tobacco ads from radio and TV in 1971. But by that point cigarette makers were advertising menthols heavily in African American magazines and in black neighborhoods.

  Sylvia Amos with the anti-tobacco campaign Beautiful Lie Ugly Truth hopes an ordinance restricting menthol sales in St. Paul will lead to fewer young people becoming addicted.  

Ahead of a recent city council meeting, Amos — who's African American — said this issue is personal. Her mother got hooked on menthols at age 11 and died of cancer after a lifetime of smoking.

  "Quit targeting young African-Americans, the LGBT community, and other people of color. Because what you're telling me is that our lives don't matter. Profits matter over us," Amos said.

  The measures don't only restrict menthol cigarette sales; they also limit mint-flavored chewing tobacco. That's what 20-year-old college student Jake Pinc was buying one day last week at Metro Petro, a gas station on University Avenue in Minneapolis near the St. Paul city limits.  

Pinc hadn't heard of either city's ordinance, but says unless he quits chewing, he'll have to go somewhere else to get his tins of Copenhagen.

  "I've been slowly cutting back as is, so I think that would obviously help the cause if I have to go extra out of my way. Being a student, I don't even have a car anyway," Pinc said.

  Tobacco use has been declining steadily across the state. The Minnesota Retailers Association says it remains a big seller at convenience stores, where cigarettes alone account for more than a third of revenue. The group says two out of every five packs sold are menthols.

  The Metro Petro's owner Clay Lambert fears the menthol restrictions will mean a big drop off in sales and customers, with no easy way to replace the expected lost revenue.

  "Food service, yes we can go to a large food service program. But that's expensive, and you can't do that overnight either. We're investing in our car wash," Lambert said. "That's going to take some time to get up and running."

  If the St. Paul City Council passes menthol restrictions as expected, they'd go into effect a year from now.  

Gas stations and corner stores in Minneapolis must have menthol off the shelves by August 1.