St. Paul to introduce some of the strictest tobacco rules in the nation

A man smoking a cigarette.
The St. Paul City Council will introduce a new ordinance that would set a $10 minimum price on a pack of cigarettes and ban coupons and other discounts at retail outlets, among other things.
Eva Hambach | AFP via Getty Images 2019

St. Paul is poised to enact some of the toughest tobacco restrictions in the nation. The City Council on Wednesday will introduce a new ordinance that would set a $10 minimum price on a pack of cigarettes and ban coupons and other discounts at retail outlets, among other things.

City Council member Nelsie Yang said it's about public health.

Nelsie Yang is holding her daughter's hand.
St. Paul City Council member Nelsie Yang.
Nina Moini | MPR News 2019

"It's about healing our communities and taking it back,” she said. “You know, putting it back into the hands of people, and allowing them to decide, do they want a community that revolves around health and safety and so much more? The answer is yes."

A sponsor of the new ordinance, Yang said that despite legal and regulatory action, she thinks tobacco companies are still improperly targeting children, people of color and low-income communities. She said she simply wants to make it as difficult as possible to start smoking, vaping and chewing and have more reason than ever to stop.

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Besides the price regulations, the new ordinance will also gradually cut back on the number of tobacco retail licenses in the city and mandate a half-mile separation for tobacco retailers, which could further restrict outlets.

Anti-tobacco activists say there is some precedent for the new regulations: New York City has a per-pack minimum price, now $13. And Providence, R.I., bans tobacco discounts.

Jeanne Weigum, president of the St. Paul-based Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota, which helped draft the city's proposed ordinance, said the per-pack minimum is actually lower than some current retail prices, and probably should be higher in St. Paul.

Cigarette smoking is already dropping among Minnesotans, and has declined mostly sharply among teens in Minnesota in recent years. Occasional use is down from nearly a third of high school students in 2000 to about 3 percent in the most recent state Health Department survey.

But about 1 in 5 now report occasional e-cigarette use.

Weigum said St. Paul's no-discount ordinance is aimed at vaping liquids, e-cigarettes and kids.

"Vaping erased literally two decades of gains we had made,” she said. “I think we're edging our way back. I think the regulations that have been put in with T-21, some of the flavoring restrictions, are starting to reverse it."

Weigum said the minimum pack price and no-coupon policy will give St. Paul some of the most far-reaching tobacco regulations in the country. She hopes it will spread, like the city's first attempt at a smoking ban in bars.

The ordinance includes other measures: Fines for underage sale would grow from $200 to $500 for first offense and up to $2,000 for a third offense. Also, liquor stores would no longer be able to sell menthol cigarettes.

For retailers — including many small businesses — it's another speed bump on the road to making a living, according to Minnesota Retailers Association President Bruce Nustad.

"I think there's just a bit of a feeling that there's a little bit of a piling on relative to consumers and retailers in St. Paul right now,” he said. “The city has asked retailers to make a lot of sacrifices. You look at sick and safe leave, you look at minimum wage. All these things, and they might be the right ideas, but it feels like this isn't the best time for that kind of a far-reaching tobacco ordinance."

But it looks like it will happen: the new ordinance gets a first reading at City Hall Wednesday, and a public hearing on Oct. 20. All seven City Council members have already signed on as co-sponsors.

That means an Oct. 27 vote is likely a foregone conclusion — although the real question will be if any other cities follow St. Paul's lead, as they did in 2004 when it implemented an indoor smoking ban.