Lobbyists descend on Minneapolis to fight menthol restriction

Published 6:41 pm Friday, July 21, 2017

By Emma Nelson, Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Tobacco companies and retailers are pushing back against Minneapolis leaders’ move to restrict the sales of menthol cigarettes in the city, bringing in lobbyists and appealing to the public.

Lobbyists visiting City Hall are telling council members about the losses local convenience stores will face. Gas stations across the city are hanging up banners in opposition. And last week, a former Florida congressman and a former Virginia police chief with ties to tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc. (RAI), which sells popular menthol brand Newport, visited the Twin Cities to speak against the proposed menthol restriction.

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Anti-smoking advocates say the fight against this restriction is bigger than they’ve previously seen at the local level.

“It’s a national presence that we haven’t quite seen like that, of tobacco companies sending in somebody from outside,” said Betsy Brock, director of research at the Association for Nonsmokers Minnesota. “We see that at the state, but never really at the local level much.”

The proposed policy, which is scheduled for a public hearing July 24, would limit menthol cigarette sales in Minneapolis to adult-only tobacco shops. The City Council passed a similar restriction on flavored tobacco products in 2015, limiting sales of products such as fruit-flavored chewing tobacco and candy-flavored cigarillos to specialty shops. St. Paul followed suit last year.

The Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers, a local trade group, says restricting menthol in addition to flavored tobacco is too much.

Clay and Mia Lambert, who have owned Metro Petro on University Avenue for 14 years, said they’re still not sure what impact the flavored tobacco restriction has had on their business — and now the city is talking about restricting menthol.

As small business owners, the Lamberts said, they rely on local trade associations to lobby for their interests. If the menthol restriction passes, they said, they’re not sure how they’ll compensate for the lost revenue.

Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets — a member of the retailers’ coalition — has visited City Hall to raise small business’ concerns. He said if a menthol sales restriction passes, the city’s tobacco retailers will lose $73 million as Minneapolis smokers leave the city to buy menthol products, or buy them illegally.

“We’re so concerned that this opens up the opportunity for criminals to now come into the city and start selling out of their car trunks, in back alleys, to anyone who has cash,” he said.

Menthol restrictions are relatively new — Chicago and San Francisco have passed them, but San Francisco’s ordinance hasn’t yet taken effect — so it’s not clear that restricting menthol creates an underground market.

Council Member Cam Gordon, the lead author of the Minneapolis menthol ordinance, said he is taking business owners’ worries into account and working on getting new data showing what the financial impact will be on tobacco retailers.

But he’s also concerned about lobbyists spreading false information about how a menthol restriction will affect tobacco retailers and smokers, he said.

Tobacco companies have historically marketed menthol cigarettes to black smokers, and today nearly 90 percent of black smokers ages 12 and up prefer menthol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The tobacco industry’s push against Minneapolis’ menthol restriction is targeting that group.

“They are the masters of strategy and marketing,” said LaTrisha Vetaw of NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center. “It’s even so low that they’re using what we’re going through in the world at this time — they’re using the fact that black men are dying at the hands of the police.”

In January, the Rev. Al Sharpton visited Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis for a talk on “decriminalizing the black community” and “banning of menthol cigarettes.” The visit, which was sponsored by RAI, included two panelists who returned to the Twin Cities last week: former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., and former Petersburg, Va., Police Chief John Dixon, a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

In a meeting with black leaders in St. Paul and a radio interview with Al McFarlane, owner of black community newspaper Insight News, Meek and Dixon said restricting menthol sales will criminalize black smokers by creating an underground tobacco market.

McFarlane said he connected with Meek and Dixon through the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of black newspapers that RAI sponsors. They said in advance that they were working for RAI, McFarlane said. McFarlane said he’s planning a show for next week with guests who support the menthol restriction.

As a member of Congress, Meek received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the tobacco industry and lobbyists for tobacco companies, including RAI, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Reached by phone, Meek would not specify RAI’s role in last week’s visit. Dixon described RAI as a sponsor, but said the company does not control what he says.

“They don’t script me at all,” Dixon said. “They don’t script anybody.”

A spokeswoman for RAI said in an e-mail that the company works with both Meek and Dixon, but “did not pay them to be there or sponsor the event.”

“That said, we are happy that meaningful conversations are being had on this important issue and hope that there will continue to be an open dialogue going forward,” she said.

The City Council is expected to vote on the menthol sales restriction in August