Could Minnesota ban menthols and wintergreen chew? Lawmakers weigh flavored tobacco restrictions
Supporters say flavored tobacco hooks kids and disproportionately harms the Black community. But some businesses question why restrictions shouldn't also apply to alcohol or cannabis.
ST. PAUL — All sales of products like menthol cigarettes, wintergreen chewing tobacco and flavored vape liquids would be banned in Minnesota under a bill currently moving through the state Legislature.
Many communities across Minnesota have already limited the sale of flavored tobacco products, but only a few have banned them outright, including Moorhead, Bloomington and Edina. Cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth have restricted sales to adult-only stores.
Ban supporters told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee earlier this month that flavored tobacco products appeal to children and offer a gateway into nicotine addiction by providing a more palatable alternative. They also argued that menthol cigarettes are aggressively marketed to the Black community, contributing to higher rates of tobacco-related disease and death.
“Ending the sale of menthol cigarettes and all flavored tobacco products is an important public health and racial justice issue that will save lives, reduce health disparities and protect kids,” said Sylvia Amos, the executive director of the Stairstep Foundation, a Black community activist group. “It is imperative that we care about every life, but especially the most vulnerable and most underrepresented lives.”
Public health research has found that menthol cigarettes make it easier to start smoking and much harder to quit. The overwhelming majority of Black smokers, 85%, report smoking menthols, versus just 29% of white smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The anti-tobacco group Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation said half of Minnesota’s menthol smokers would quit smoking if the cigarettes were no longer sold.
In 2019, Massachusetts became the first state to ban flavored tobacco and vaping products. California voters in 2022 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure upholding a law restricting the sale of all flavored tobacco.
Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, a Minneapolis DFLer, is the main author of the Minnesota ban, and he’s joined by Sen. Rob Kupec, a DFLer from Moorhead.
Flavored products are defined in the bill as tobacco, tobacco-related device or electronic delivery device that “imparts a taste or smell, other than the taste or smell of tobacco.” The bill specifically mentions flavors like chocolate, fruit, honey, menthol, mint, vanilla, wintergreen or alcoholic beverages.
The bill could potentially be included in a larger bill related to health policy later on in the legislative session. Though senators said it may have to make a stop in the committee that handles state and local government issues first.
A national flavored tobacco ban is already in the works, but it comes in the form of bureaucratic rulemaking rather than legislation. At the direction of President Joe Biden, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is exploring new rules to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The announcement came in 2022 and the agency has not yet acted. Anti-smoking groups say the process could take years and states should act now.
Opponents of the ban raised concerns about the impact on business. Just one month after voters approved the ban, California saw a more than 17% drop in cigarette sales, according to the Tax Foundation , a nonpartisan think tank.
Business groups questioned the proposed ban’s ability to prevent youth smoking and pointed out that Minnesotans will just travel across state lines to obtain flavored tobacco. Moorhead sits on the North Dakota border and the Twin Cities metro is about a half-hour drive from Wisconsin.
Convenience store operators and vape shop owners also pointed out that the alcohol and legal cannabis industries do not have the same restrictions. Nick Phelps, a Ramsey vape shop owner who touts his products as a way for adults to quit smoking, pointed to alcohol-containing “Hard Mountain Dew” being sold at liquor stores.
“I have yet to hear any outcry of this appealing to the youth or children, which is absolute hypocrisy,” he said. “Why do adults add creamer to their coffee? You don't usually see teenagers buying the creamer at the grocery store. Mainly it's adults. It's because adults like flavors.”
Pat McKone with the American Lung Association told senators that businesses made similar arguments about the threat to their bottom line when Minnesota was considering its indoor smoking ban in 2007. While many vape businesses promote their product as a way to quit smoking, McKone said flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes set up the next generation for addiction.
“The bottom line is flavors are driving the state's youth epidemic,” she said. “These enticing flavors along with the new, more powerful delivery devices have provided a high dose of nicotine addicting our youth at rates we've never seen.”
Frank Orton, who owns a small chain of convenience stores and gas stations in northern Minnesota, said if stores follow the law and sell to people 21 and older, people of age should be free to make their own choices.
“And at some point, I think we need to allow adults to make the decision,” Orton told the committee. “They know the consequences.”
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