After the recent passage of tobacco-related laws at the state and federal level, New Hope adopted a list of city regulations at the May 26 city council meeting.

The passage of the regulations was overshadowed by state action May 16 and federal action in December. Some items in the New Hope ordinance conformed to the new laws at the state and national level, like raising the minimum purchasing age of tobacco products from 18 to 21, banning flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes and increasing the fee charged to businesses in the event of a violation.

The ordinance also raises the age of who can sell the product to 18; bans all “candy” flavors of tobacco except for mint, menthol and wintergreen; removes the ability to punish underage people who possess, use or attempt to purchase tobacco; and raises the age of those asked by law enforcement to do compliance checks from 15-17 years of age to 17-20 years of age.

The city also committed to a cap on the number of tobacco sales licenses and to a ban on selling the products at a store that also contains a pharmacy. The city has set the limit at 19 licenses in a single year. Right now, 21 retailers in the city sell tobacco in some form and two retailers contain a pharmacy. According to the ordinance, the two retailers will be allowed to complete the license period but will be prohibited from renewing their tobacco license in 2021.

Mayor Kathi Hemken called the list of regulations “a start,” but not the “final answer” when it comes to keeping tobacco away from youth.

Months in the making

The city made a goal of pursuing greater tobacco restrictions in December, shortly after T-21 was passed at the federal level. At the time, it was shared that of the 21 licenses issued in New Hope in 2019, 48% of the establishments were located within 500 feet of a school or park. Councilmembers indicated at the time that they wanted to consider the issue, but they were unsure how they would vote on it. Similar ordinances had been adopted in neighboring municipalities like Robbinsdale and Golden Valley during recent years.

A potential ordinance was discussed in a February work session.

City officials communicated with the Mitchell Hamline Public Health Law Center and Hennepin County Public Health for advice on enacting a new ordinance. Of the recommendations, the groups suggested removing punishment for underage attempts to purchase tobacco, which is a current New Hope policy. The groups claimed punishing underage offenders was ineffective in reducing use and often enforced more heavily on minorities. The new ordinance shifts responsibility to the retailer who sold the product.

No ban on mint flavors

Representatives from two local retailers spoke at the meeting, both offering support for raising the purchasing age to 21.

“Not everyone in high school knows a 21-year-old, but everyone knows an 18-year-old, and we’ve seen a significant drop in tobacco sales because of this,” said Matt Durand, who represented a local Holiday station store.

However, Durand was wary of a future ban on mint, wintergreen and menthol flavors, warning of black market dealings in convenience store parking lots and customer flight into neighboring cities like Crystal to get flavored products. He said when the mint flavor was banned in St. Paul, a Holiday store in the city reported an immediate 30% decline in sales.

He urged the council to wait until mint bans were placed at the state and federal level, as making the change now amid the COVID-19 pandemic could put his business “in big trouble.”

Others who spoke identified themselves as non-New Hope residents that belonged to Minnesota anti-tobacco organizations or coalitions. They encouraged the ban of mint-flavored products, citing a history of targeting minorities and poor communities and attracting a new generation of smokers.

Councilmember Cedrick Frazier echoed the sentiments of those that spoke, saying that he had “seen the billboards” growing up on the south side of Chicago and had lost an uncle to longtime menthol-only tobacco use.

Councilmember Jonathan London asked if staff had heard any comments or concerns from smokers who live in New Hope.

Brandon Bell, the community development staff member overseeing the creation of the ordinance, said no such comments had been received. London said if the city council wanted to be “data-driven,” it should wait to pass an ordinance for a few years until data was available on which regulations were most effective. He said he would prefer to discuss the issue more in a work session.

Hemken said she supported London’s desire to “look at the data,” but that she believed an ordinance was overdue.

“If we can get something passed I think we’re making progress,” Hemken said.

The ordinance passed as-is on a 4-1 vote, notably allowing the continued sale of mint, menthol and wintergreen flavors. London voted against the action.

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