Bloomington businesses that sell tobacco products and e-cigarettes have until the end of the year to remove flavored products, including menthol products, from their store shelves, the Bloomington City Council has agreed.

The council’s vote to prohibit the sale of such products within the city, in an effort to reduce youth tobacco use, goes one step further, as it will also prohibit new licenses from being issued by the city.

The decision was not unanimous, as the council voted 4-2 in favor of the changes during its April 26 meeting. And the less-than-unanimous vote reflected the sentiment of residents and business owners from Bloomington, and beyond.

Bloomington business owners and employees expressed concern that banning the sale of flavored products within the city would merely push buyers to neighboring cities. With the loss of those sales go the sale of other merchandise, such as snacks and beverages, according to Dan Erickson, owner of Normandale BP gas station.

Steve Anderson, owner of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, which has two Bloomington locations, said that convenience store owners want to prevent youth from smoking, but dismissed the notion that the citywide ban is an effective way to prevent youth from accessing tobacco products. He said that local retailers wanted a role in crafting a plan that would better address the city’s goal.

Business owners said the lost revenue as a result of the sales ban would be significant enough to necessitate reducing hours and laying off employees. And in the case of Bloomington’s e-cigarette retailer, it would close the business completely, according to Nathan Torrey, a Bloomington resident and manager of Smokeless, which has been selling e-cigarette products for several years.

The council’s public hearing, spanning approximately 90 minutes, included several comments praising the city’s initiative.

Beyond the flavor ban, the city will stop issuing new tobacco licenses to retailers next year. Existing retailers will be allowed to continue renewing their licenses, but the sale of a business will effectively end the sale of tobacco products at that business.

That’s uncharted territory in Minnesota, according to Nick Kelley, the city’s acting public health administrator. “We would be the first here in Minnesota,” he said.

“The sunset provision is an extremely bold step forward in terms of public health,” Councilmember Patrick Martin said.

Martin supported the effort to reduce youth tobacco and e-cigarette use, but lobbied for a provision to allow the city’s limited number of dedicated tobacco product stores to continue selling flavored products. Those stores, unlike convenience stores, are open to adults only and do not have other revenue generators to support their business, he explained.

Councilmember Shawn Nelson recounted his personal history with smoking and its impact on his life, noting that as a parent of teenagers he is aware of a widespread perception among teens that e-cigarettes are not harmful. He expressed doubt, however, that asking business owners to respond to a draft ordinance was the best way to include the business community in the city’s process. He also questioned if the city’s plan was an overreach in its effort to reduce youth access to nicotine products.

“Adults continue to have the right to make stupid decisions,” he noted.

Councilmember Nathan Coulter said that any reduction in youth tobacco use is a good thing, and he was in favor of the most effective policy to achieve it.

He was reluctant to make exceptions for businesses that exclusively sell tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, noting that while those devices may help smokers quit, there is also evidence that they have negative consequences.

Coulter was not concerned about a Bloomington ban driving buyers to neighboring cities for tobacco products, saying that the council cannot control anything that happens outside of its borders. Criticism that the city’s restrictions interfere with the free market was not a concern, either. Governmental regulations affect many things, such as development plans, he explained.

Tobacco products are known to be harmful, addictive and marketed to youth, and the city has a responsibility to protect the health of its residents, Coulter added in outlining his support. “This is about the health and safety of our community,” he said.

Councilmember Jenna Carter said that one of her motivations in seeking office was the health inequities across Bloomington. Noting that statistics show the life expectancy among residents from one part of the city to another can vary by 10 years, she favored restrictions on tobacco. Tobacco use is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths, she said.

Additional restrictions upon tobacco retailers cannot come as a surprise to business owners, and Carter hoped that they have been planning for this moment to make up for lost revenue, as other businesses do when necessary.

Councilmember Dwayne Lowman supported extending the sunset provisions on both facets of the plan, particularly the end of flavored tobacco sales for dedicated tobacco businesses, but found no support for doing so.

Martin and Nelson voted against the plan while Councilmember Jack Baloga was absent from the meeting.

The flavor ban does not include products that have a tobacco flavoring added to them, and will not affect products deemed to be cessation products by the Food and Drug Administration. The flavor ban begins Jan. 1. The city will cease issuing new tobacco licenses as of June 30, 2022.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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