City tightens rules on sale of tobacco related products

Jonny Ny, 21, manager of E-Cigarettes, located off White Bear Ave., says he’s fearful the new ban on in-store sampling may destroy his business because customers are reluctant to buy a flavored product they haven’t sampled. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Jonny Ny, 21, manager of E-Cigarettes, located off White Bear Ave., says he’s fearful the new ban on in-store sampling may destroy his business because customers are reluctant to buy a flavored product they haven’t sampled. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Before the April 27 public hearing, city clerk Karen Haag instructs Maplewood business owners and their consultants to select three speakers to voice their stance on revisions to the city’s tobacco ordinance. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Before the April 27 public hearing, city clerk Karen Haag instructs Maplewood business owners and their consultants to select three speakers to voice their stance on revisions to the city’s tobacco ordinance. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Students from Tartan High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions group prepare to speak in support of Maplewood’s revised tobacco sale ordinance at the April 27 city council meeting. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)
Students from Tartan High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions group prepare to speak in support of Maplewood’s revised tobacco sale ordinance at the April 27 city council meeting. (Erin Hinrichs/Review)

Maplewood City Hall was abuzz Monday, April 27, as small-business owners, students and activists waited outside council chambers for the meeting where revisions to the city's tobacco sale ordinance promised to spark a lively debate.

In an effort to streamline the public hearing, city clerk Karen Haag instructed attendees to select just three representatives to speak on each side of the issue. Testimonies would be limited to three minutes per person.

Given the breadth of the five proposed amendments — including bans on minors selling tobacco products and on the sampling of electronic cigarettes in retail tobacco establishments — many speakers chose to focus on a solitary item.

The city council, on the other hand, didn't discuss each specific code. They approved the first reading of the revised ordinance in a 3-1 vote, with councilman Bob Cardinal dissenting and councilman Marvin Koppen abstaining from the vote, due to a conflict of interest. Koppen said he holds a cigarette license for his store, Party Time Liquor.

Mayor Nora Slawik said the proposed amendments signified a "progressive curve" before the council took a vote. But she's no stranger to regulating tobacco use.

She served in the state Legislature when the Minnesota Freedom to Breathe Act passed in 2007.

"It was a big fight, for a long time, to get that passed," she said. "Look at how far we've come. We're working on this one step at a time."

Stricter than state law

In 2014, legislators amended the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act to include the use of electronic cigarettes in the definition of smoking and to restrict the use of the product in areas like hospitals, government facilities and public schools.  At the same time, they stated that municipal governments reserved the authority to further regulate the use of electronic cigarettes.

Since then, a handful of area cities — including North St. Paul, Roseville and Shoreview — have passed ordinances prohibiting the sampling of e-cigarettes in licensed establishments.

But as council member Marylee Abrams pointed out, the city of Maplewood had a much more comprehensive list of revisions that also included restricting the size of cigar packages to five cigars, setting a minimum price for a single cigar at $2.60, imposing the same licensing and sales regulations on e-cigarettes as with any other tobacco products, and including the term "kiosk" in the current definition of "moveable places of business."

Council member Bob Cardinal voiced hesitation early on, asking Katie Engman, program director of the North Suburban Tobacco Compliance Project, "Would it be proper for us to wait until the state acts on this?"

Engman, who has been working with Maplewood for the past 15 years on reducing the impact of tobacco use, responded, "We need cities to address this locally, and we know that would push the bubble."

Longtime council member Kathleen Juenemann added, "It takes somebody to be in front. A long time ago, we joined this movement and made our initial ordinance. This is just, to me, a natural progression."

No more sampling

In accordance with state law, Haag reported that all affected tobacco sales license holders received notice of the proposed ordinance by U.S. mail at least 30 days prior to the public hearing.

The initial notice they received included a provision prohibiting e-cigarette smoking in "places of employment." This stipulation had been dropped from the final draft, approved by the council, but the banning of in-store sampling elicited more than one plea to reconsider.

"Since the electric cigarettes came along, we added seven employees to our business," said Anan Barbarawi, the store manager at Maplewood Tobacco. "It will hurt our business. We will have to consider relocating or shutting down."

After the meeting, Barbarawi explained that in order to sell e-cigarettes, customers often need a tutorial on how to use the device.

Sue Sindt, owner of Simply Vapour — another local business that sells nicotine vaping liquids — added that many who sample e-cigarettes are motivated by the fact that they want to reduce their tobacco use. In this regard, she said, e-cigarettes are "a healthy alternative" to cigarettes and the ban on in-store sampling penalizes these customers.

"It does provide great tobacco reduction for people who want to stay healthy," Sindt said at the podium.

It's an argument Cardinal factored into his decision to vote against the proposed ordinance changes.

"First off, it's a healthy alternative to cigarettes for those who smoke," he said during a follow-up phone interview. "The state should direct what occurs with this, instead of them [representatives from the North Suburban Tobacco Compliance Project] going around to all these municipalities and getting provisions."

Reducing peer pressure

Asked what she thought of the claim that in-store sampling of e-cigarettes is beneficial in helping smokers achieve tobacco reduction, Engman refused to budge.

"If you have a toaster shop, you plug it in to make sure it works. You don't need to make a piece of toast," she said.

This analogy relates to one of her main concerns — that sellers are allegedly abusing the right to give in-store e-cigarette tutorials by inviting customers to loiter and smoke in a lounge-like atmosphere. It's an environment, she says, that makes smoking more appealing to youths.

According to all those who spoke in support of the proposed ordinance amendments, however, the ban on allowing minors to sell tobacco products garnered the most support.

Michelle Tesser said as a teenager, she worked at a market on Frost Avenue and felt pressure from her friends to sell them tobacco products.

Tesser also drew attention to marketing practices that target young people, such as flavored tobacco, cheap prices and colorful packaging.  

"I want them to be less appealing to youth," she told the council.

Student representatives from both Tartan High School's Students Against Destructive Decisions group and John Glenn Middle School's Support Our Schools group raised similar points.

As a retired teacher, Juenemann said the element of peer pressure resonated with her. Before casting her vote to help make tobacco products less accessible to youths, she addressed the opposition.

"We're not saying you can't sell tobacco," she said. "We're just limiting the things you can do to sell it."

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.
 

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