The Golden Valley City Council conducted the first reading of an ordinance that contained several changes to the city’s tobacco policy at the Oct. 2 meeting. The council chambers were full of interested residents, business professionals and local supporters of increased tobacco regulations, several of whom spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting.

The council voted unanimously to adopt a set of regulations relating to tobacco sales within the city, to audience applause. Those include prohibition of the sale of flavored products, including menthol, at all retailers; raising the minimum purchasing age to 21; prohibition of all sales at pharmacies; prohibition of all free samples or indoor sampling; setting a tobacco sales license capacity of eight licenses; raising the minimum sale price of a tobacco product from $2 to $3; requiring all liquid nicotine products to have child-proof packaging; requiring all retailers to display signs of minimum purchasing ages; and ordering the use of additional compliance checks on retailers by the Golden Valley Police Department.

The language of the tobacco ordinance was also updated to include modern definitions of tobacco products, like electronic cigarettes and the nicotine-infused liquid that is transmitted through e-cigarettes.

Golden Valley is currently under a six-month moratorium that prohibits the density of licenses near schools and other public institutions which will expire in February 2020. The city council may evaluate the impact of the moratorium and take additional action at that time.

Due to the increase in scope and number of compliance checks, the cost to acquire a tobacco license will also increase as a portion of license fees are used to conduct compliance checks. The current cost to purchase a license is $275 but will rise to $475.

At the same time, penalties for failed compliance checks will be lowered if the ordinance passes. City Clerk Kris Luedke explained that the changes were the result of input at a council work session, to align with the cost of compliance failures among massage and liquor license holders.

If approved at the second reading on Oct. 15, the ordinance will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Councilmember Joanie Clausen said that would give retailers time to sell their soon-to-be prohibited products.

Since the number of tobacco licenses in the city is nearly double the proposal (15 exist, eight is the proposed capacity), the licenses will be reduced through attrition.

City Attorney Maria Cisneros explained that as licenses are surrendered, or license holders choose to not renew or licenses get revoked. Pharmacies that currently have a license, like Walgreens, will not be able to reapply next year when the ordinance is in effect.

Luedke added that the city received an overwhelming amount of feedback on the ordinance: 684 survey respondents, 245 submitted comments addressed to the city, and 2,171 engagements on the city’s social media channels.

Business owners speak

Little was discussed about the proposed changes to the ordinance, because the council has been discussing tobacco regulations at least monthly since August.

Councilmember Steven Schmidgall chose to speak briefly before the public hearing portion. He voiced hesitation to what the real impact would be to local business, but added that he could not “sit up here and vote against this ordinance.”

Representatives from Liquor Barrel, Down in the Valley and a state convenience store coalition spoke to individual pieces of the ordinance, most notably the banning of menthol flavors.

Liquor Barrel representative Gretchen Weinke said she felt the council had been presented with a lot of “one-sided rhetoric.” Some council members explicitly thanked ClearWay Minnesota, a lobbyist for tobacco regulation, for helping educate them on the issue.

“If the goal is to limit access to youth, having a T-21 law does that. Young people are not getting these products from your local retailers, they are getting them socially through older friends and siblings, and this will put in that age separation between an 18-year-old that is still in high school and a 21-year-old adult making the choice to use these products,” she said.

Weinke argued that regulating menthol, which in her experience was not marketed to a young audience, would be an “overreach” that would “police the way that adults are making life choices.”

Other cities: ‘step up’

The city council members had many to thank for getting the issue on the agenda. Many chose to recognize Councilmember Larry Fonnest, who many touted as the council’s primary advocate.

“If not for him, I don’t think we’d be talking about this,” said Clausen. She added that before a listening session that helped city officials gauge public opinion on the issue, she had not been entirely convinced regulations were a good idea. Afterward, she called her grandchildren to warn them of the dangers of modern tobacco use.

“It really had an impact on me,” she said.

Fonnest showed a copy of the latest TIME Magazine to the audience, which read “The new American addition” and was about teen e-cigarette use.

“It’s not that we as a council are intending to punish our local retailers, we are here to address a crisis,” he said. “We are here to uphold public health and wellness and do our job as elected officials of the people.”

Mayor Shep Harris echoed the gratitude to Fonnest and encouraged neighboring communities, New Hope and Crystal, to “step up” and enact their forms of municipal tobacco regulation.

Robbinsdale currently has an ordinance raising the minimum age to 21 and restricting flavored products and e-cigarette products to adult-restricted stores, changes made in May. City officials discussed the restriction of menthol products to adult-only stores but ultimately scrapped the restriction after retailers voiced concerns over the potential for sales losses.

“Let’s send a loud and clear message to everyone that if you’re going to go to some other community, you’re going to have to really go very far,” said Harris.

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