Politics and Government

$15 for a pack of cigarettes? Supporters, opponents speak out ahead of Minneapolis City Council meeting

Racks of cigarettes for sale in a store
Racks of cigarettes show current prices at A to Z Tobacco in south Minneapolis, as pictured on Sunday. The Minneapolis City Council is considering a measure to raise the minimum price of all cigarettes to $15 a pack.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Outside A to Z Tobacco in Minneapolis on Sunday, Julio Lopez Ocotoxtle hit a fresh pack of cigarettes against his palm, loosening them up. He lit one up.

If the Minneapolis City Council passes a measure set to be considered later this week, the price of those cigarettes could increase significantly — to a minimum price of $15 a pack. That’s up from $11.35 to $13.50 a pack for some brands being sold at the store earlier this week.

“I could fight reality and say that it’s okay for them to make the price go up higher in order to make people quit smoking cigarettes, you know ... but as of right now, my living situation, like — I need cigarettes to get by,” Lopez Ocotoxtle said.

The 30-year-old said he’s currently homeless, and $15 a pack is too much for him. But smoking is what helps when his schizophrenia gets bad.

“I hallucinate and I hear voices,” he said. “When I smoke cigarettes, it calms my nerves down.”

With tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death in Minnesota, the proposed ordinance aims to make it easier to kick the dangerous addiction. It also aims to stop youth from getting hooked on smoking in the first place. But for many tobacco users, like Lopez Ocotoxtle, the possible change brings great anxiety.

He said he’s scared he won’t be able to depend on cigarettes anymore.

“I’m having my fingers crossed, hoping it doesn’t happen,” he said.

The proposed ordinance would not only raise the minimum price of tobacco products, it would also ban price discounts and coupons on tobacco products. That’s a move that proponents say would make it easier for people to quit.

Health officials say young adult nonsmokers who receive tobacco coupons are twice as likely to become smokers. And the tobacco industry has historically targeted Black communities with marketing to get people hooked.

Minneapolis resident Sylvia Amos is in favor of the proposed ordinance.

“Tobacco addiction has claimed the life of my mother, the life of a husband and the life of three aunts, all of whom smoked menthol cigarettes,” she said at a City Council committee meeting last week that drew speakers for and against the measure.

The exterior of a tobacco store under a blue sky
A to Z Tobacco in south Minneapolis, as seen on Sunday.
Cari Spencer | MPR News

Amos said she’s organized for the Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota.

“The tobacco industry has relentlessly targeted Black Americans with marketing, and we suffer from tobacco-related diseases at very high rates. That is racist,” she said. “For them, it has to do with power and profits. For us, it’s a matter of life and death.”

Council Member Andrea Jenkins said at that meeting that she supports much of the proposal, especially as someone who has been involved in efforts to curb smoking in Minnesota.

She said she’s aware a price increase could affect communities of color in particular. And she said it’s necessary to tackle racism, affordable housing and unemployment, too.

“How do we address the issues that are impacting communities, and the reasons why they smoke?” Jenkins said at the meeting. “It is also a fact that is very challenging, and a lot of people seek some comfort in tobacco use.”

That’s true for 56-year-old James Bates who — back outside A and Z Tobacco — said smoking is a stress reliever.

“I mean, it’s a rough habit, but I don’t think that’s no reason for the government to try to make people to stop it,” he said.

As currently proposed, city health officials said the proposed ordinance would make the minimum price of cigarettes in Minneapolis the highest in the nation.

“People aren’t going to stop smoking, because smoking is a habit. They’re just going to find another creative way to get hold of the product,” Bates said. “(A) black market is gonna happen when that happens.”

Others said a price increase could cause them to quit. Monique White said she’s been smoking for about 15 years, after one night out with friends. She said she knows firsthand how addicting smoking can be.

“I said, ‘Give me a cigarette. Let me show you guys how stupid you guys look.’ And it went from me doing that, to saying, ‘Can I bum a cigarette from somebody?’ And then I started buying cigarettes,” she recalled.

Speaking as she bought a pack of cigarettes for $12.50 earlier this week, she said she doesn’t want to pay $15 for a pack of smokes.

“If they go up, I’m gonna quit. Because that’s ridiculous,” she said. “It would be better for my health to stop anyway.”

The proposal would also ban indoor smoking at cigar and hookah lounges and set a $15 minimum on other tobacco products. The additional money would not be a tax but would go directly to the retailers. The Council is set to consider the measure at its meeting on Thursday.

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