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Columbia Heights recently took a step to curb smoking by restricting the sale of menthol and other flavored tobacco or tobacco related products in the city. But some business owners claim this move will have negative effects on them.

On Oct. 11 the Columbia Heights City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to amend the city’s tobacco regulations and bring the tobacco chapter of city code into compliance with Minnesota state statutes.

The ordinance restricts the sale of all flavored tobacco products to licensed tobacco product shops (also known as smoke shops) that derive 90% or more their gross revenue from the sale of tobacco or tobacco-related products. It increases administrative fines, implementing a $300 fine for a first violation, $600 fine for a second violation within a 36-month period and a $1,000 fine for a third offense within a 36-month period. The ordinance also eliminates criminal penalties for tobacco-related offense for people under the age of 21, who they may still be subject to civil penalties or remedies such as tobacco-related education classes, diversion programs, community service.

The ordinance change stems from a discussion during a City Council work session Aug. 2.

“This ordinance was initiated by the City Council to protect the youth of our community,” city planner Minerva Hark said.

City staff collaborated with Hamline University’s Public Health Law Center and the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota to update the ordinance.

During a public hearing Sept. 27, several business leaders from Bobby and Steve’s Auto World spoke against the ordinance.

“I think you’re making a mistake with what you’re doing,” Bobby Williams, senior partner of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, told the City Council. “All the cities are doing this. I don’t smoke, but I know our customers do, and this is a big thing. We’re starting to limit what we can do as a human being, and I think that’s a big mistake to start making ... I believe our customers have a right to choose.”

Williams pointed out that City Council Member Nick Novitsky, a smoker, would be limited on where he could purchase menthol cigarettes.

Bobby and Steve’s Auto World partner Jeff Bahe reported approximately 30% of the business’s employees live in Columbia Heights. He said the business makes roughly $10,000 a week in revenue from menthol cigarette sales that goes toward paying those employees’ wages.

“In order ... to pay our taxes, pay our employees a good, livable wage we have to be able to conduct business, and by passing this what we’re going to do is we’ll have less an ability to pay our employees and our taxes and pay all of our fair share,” Bahe said.

Brent Morris, manager of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World continence store, provided input about smoking after working with kids for more than 15 years and being a smoker himself.

“When I see amendments like this I see North Minneapolis, which has become kind of a black market for menthol cigarettes,” Morris said. “People go other places and then they sell individually, pack by pack, because there’s a limited amount of places you can get menthol cigarettes in Minneapolis. I worked with kindergartners all the way through teens, and if there’s one thing I learned about working with kids ... if they want it, they’ll get it.”

Morris reported half of the sales at the Bobby and Steve’s Auto World convenience store are menthol cigarettes.

“If you take that away, you’re crippling the business,” he said, saying the store will lose sales of gas, snacks, drinks and more if customers can’t also pick up flavored tobacco products. “All this does is hinder us and does nothing to help the overall problem, which they’re trying to solve.”

Morris said he and his employees at the Bobby and Steve’s Auto World are trained and that there are statewide systems in place to avoid selling tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

On April 29 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans for a federal ban on the manufacture and distribution of menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars to address public health disparities in commercial tobacco use created by aggressive tobacco industry marketing of menthol to African Americans and other people of color, LGBTQIA+ people and youth.

Molly Schmidtke, a community outreach coordinator with the Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota, said 21 Twin Cities communities restrict the sale of tobacco products and eight of those cities have opted to completely end the sale of all flavored tobacco products.

“Restricting the sale of all flavored tobacco products sends a clear message that Columbia Heights will not stand by while the tobacco industry addicts a whole new generation,” Schmidtke said.

Former Columbia Heights resident Grace Plowman, who was recently named Youth Advocate of the Year by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, spoke in favor of the removal of criminal penalties for tobacco-related offenses for people under 21.

“I support these policies because they help to create racial equities within the city,” she said. “As a Black person, I know all too well that too many people of colors are already being penalized for non-violent drug offenses and many of these people are recovering addicts themselves. Removing penalties for purchase, use and possession is one simple step we can take to help.”

On Oct. 11 the City Council unanimously approved the second reading of the ordinance.

“It’s always a difficult responsibility to maintain balance between supporting our local businesses and following the wishes of the residents ,all while evaluating the hard data presented by both sides of an issue,” City Council Member Kt Jacobs said. “I’ve listened to companies that have come forward. Locally, I’ve listened to the residents, and a policy such as the one before us this evening are proven to reduce the use by both youth and African adults, two of the most targeted tobacco industry market groups, and I cannot in good conscience ignore these numbers.”

The ordinance will go into effect 30 days after approval, which is Wednesday, Nov. 10.


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