Students gather at Capitol in support of bill banning flavored tobacco products

a group of protestors hold yellow signs
Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation held a rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol building on Tuesday in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Hundreds of students and advocates gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to express their support for a bill that would ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in Minnesota.

The bill isn’t new — it’s undergone multiple hearings in the past few years. Many communities in Minnesota have enacted a ban on flavored tobacco products at the municipal level.

The proposed bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Ethan Cha, DFL-Woodbury, and Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, would ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes and shisha, the flavored tobacco used in hookah products, across the state.

“I refuse to stand by while the tobacco industry profits off our children’s health and future,” Cha said during the bill’s hearing Tuesday. Students and other advocates also testified during the hearing.

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The bill was referred to the House Finance Committee.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s 2022 Student Survey, one in seven 11th graders currently use e-cigarettes, and 88 percent of those students use flavored e-cigarettes.

During the hearing, students shared stories of themselves and friends becoming addicted to flavored tobacco products, such as vapes.

“I used to vape myself and I came to the realization that I don’t want myself, or any of my siblings or any of my friends, to be targeted or have this addition,” said Da’Kwon Eppolite, a student at Rochester Community and Technical College. “If I want to see a change in the world, I should be part of the change.”

protestors rally outside a capitol building
Members of Smoke-Free Generation held a rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol building.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Namad Khalif, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, pushed back on the idea that flavored hookah should be exempt from the bill because of its cultural importance in the East African community.

“As a member of this community, I want you to know that hookah is not unique to any community or culture,” said Khalif. “It is communities like mine that get left behind when policies get watered down.”

About 24 percent of East Africans in Minnesota smoke cigarettes or hookah compared to 13.8 percent of Minnesota’s overall population.

Some Minnesota tobacco shop and convenience store owners are opposing the bill, saying a ban on the flavored tobacco products could harm businesses. They argue that a ban will not reduce the demand for the products.

“We’ve seen firsthand that these types of bans do nothing but shift the purchase to the adjacent states,” said Frank Orton, the owner of Ortons convenience stores and gas stations. “I think it’s better served to be handled at the federal level and we need to be mindful of the mainstream products that grown adults choose to use, even though it may be detrimental to their own health.”

The Biden Administration has considered taking up a nationwide ban on menthol cigarettes, which are a leading cause of death among Black Americans, but has already delayed its decision on the ban, which was first expected last summer.