Retail groups, St. Paul businesses speak out against tobacco ordinance

St. Paul tobacco retailers are speaking out against a proposed ordinance that would raise cigarette prices, clamp down on sales and increase penalties for rule-breakers.

Local businesses feel shut out of the political process and have struggled to be heard since the City Council started operating remotely at the beginning of the pandemic, Minnesota Retailers Association President Bruce Nustad said at a news conference Wednesday outside of Tobasi Tobacco in St. Paul. Business owners are already struggling amid the pandemic’s economic fallout, he said, and they now fear that new restrictions on tobacco sales will send their customers elsewhere.

“Retailers have been asked to change their business model several times for the city of St. Paul, without evidence that those changes have made a difference,” Nustad said. “Add on to that the pandemic, convenience retailers have been on the front lines.”

The ordinance, which all seven council members support and Mayor Melvin Carter has said he intends to sign, would be among the strictest in the nation. It would reduce the number of available tobacco licenses in the city, stop liquor stores from selling menthol products and increase the penalties for retailers who violate local laws. It would also set a $10 minimum for a pack of cigarettes and ban the use of coupons for tobacco and vaping products. The average price per pack is $9.57 in Minnesota, according to the state Commerce Department.

Business owners and smokers who oppose the proposal wrote letters to city officials asking that they allow adults to spend their money how they like. Fewer buyers could force trusted neighborhood stores to close their doors, they said.

“Rather than force the tax income from cigarettes to a different state through bad policy, you should focus on using taxes from cigarettes and tobacco to fund useful smoking-cessation programs,” St. Paul resident Robert Zeimet wrote.

Nonsmoking advocates say increasing the price of tobacco products is a highly effective way of reducing tobacco use. Stopping youth tobacco addiction before it starts and helping adults quit prevents future disease and death and reduces health care costs, ClearWay Minnesota Chief Executive David Willoughby wrote to the city.

“Decades of evidence shows that increasing the price of cigarettes is the number-one way to help adults quit and prevent kids from ever smoking. It is also well-known that the tobacco industry uses price promotions to target Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ and people of color,” Willoughby wrote.

Council President Amy Brendmoen said during Wednesday’s meeting that it’s time for retailers to come up with creative ways to attract customers.

“I’m just not on board with using something that we know kills people and is highly addictive as a way to lure people into your store,” she said. “I’ve said this a few times — give me a good samosa. Give me some pizza. Give me some bubble tea. I’ll get in there.” The council is expected to vote on the ordinance Oct. 27.

Staff reporter Katie Galioto contributed to this report.

Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112