Arden Hills upholds flavored tobacco ban


Arden Hills Tobacco has been in business in the city for over a decade, located in a strip mall in the 3600 block of Lexington Avenue. The Arden Hills City Council considered exempting it from the city’s new ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products, but ultimately voted against the exemption on July 8. (courtesy of Google Maps)

A possible amendment to Arden Hills’ tobacco ordinance was shot down July 8, when city council members decided not to exempt the city’s one adult-only tobacco store from a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products. 

The decision has led the business, Arden Hills Tobacco, to seek legal counsel and consider a suit against the city, according to the store’s manager, Maher Safi. 

Back in March, the council voted unanimously to amend the city’s tobacco ordinance, raising the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and banning the sale of flavored products within city limits. The move was prompted by an increase in electronic cigarette use among teenagers, based on findings from the 2017 Minnesota Youth Tobacco Survey.

At a March 25 public hearing, the council heard almost unanimous support for increasing the purchasing age. However, business owners expressed concerns about the financial impacts of the flavor ban and doubts about its efficacy. 

Although the council voted in favor of the ban that night, many council members agreed to meet with Safi after the fact. At a May 20 work session, they considered another amendment exempting from the ban pre-existing retailers that generate over 90% of their overall sales from tobacco and nicotine products. 

In practice, this would have exempted only Arden Hills Tobacco, and would have lasted until the store changed ownership or location.

However, after another public hearing on July 8, the council decided against the change. The flavor ban will go into effect Dec. 31, giving stores until the end of the year — and the end of their current tobacco licenses — to move all flavored products off their shelves. 

As of July 1, customers must now be 21 years or older to purchase tobacco in Arden Hills. The age to use such products, as mandated by the state, remains 18.

 

Possible legal action

Safi said that Arden Hills Tobacco has looked into other retail spaces, but is having trouble finding viable options and is not willing to take on the estimated $100,000 cost of moving to a neighboring city, saying another flavor ban could go into effect in another community at a later date.  

“We’re looking at constitutional law. We believe that the City of Arden Hills does not have the authority to ban a legal product outright,” he said of his initial legal consultation. 

Safi estimated that the store currently has roughly $200,000 worth of inventory, and said that state statutes make it challenging to move product from one store to another, even under the same owner.

 

Business interests

Ted Brausen, owner of the Arden Hills Shell station and Brausen Automotive, has also voiced his opposition to the ordinance. In an interview, he estimated the ban would take away roughly 30% of his sales, given that customers who buy flavored products often buy gas, snacks and beverages, as well. 

Both he and Safi have made the argument to the city that banning the sale of flavored products to everyone, regardless of age, won’t stop teens from using e-cigarettes. 

Customers now have to be 21 or older to enter Arden Hills Tobacco, given the increased purchasing age. Said Safi, “It’s a little bit different than a gas station where children and young adults are maybe exposed to the product.”

According to data from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Arden Hills Tobacco has passed all six of its federal compliance checks since December 2014. 

In a June 4 email to council, Brausen said the ban is “only hurting the businesses in Arden Hills, the youth will still get the [electronic devices] online where they have been getting them all along.”

He said he’s hoping that with more time until the ban goes into effect, the council will look into the issue further and change its mind on the subject.

“When people realize that these cities are taking freedoms away from 30-, 40-, 50-year-old people, I think people are not going to be happy about it,” he said in an interview.

Brausen also mentioned the possibility of legal action, citing a current case in Massachusetts where a convenience store chain has sued six towns over flavor restrictions, claiming that restricting the sale of flavored tobacco to adult-only tobacco stores puts other businesses at an unfair disadvantage. 

Gene Nichols of Shoreview was the sole representative of the group Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation to speak at the July 8 hearing. 

“We do appreciate that the [amendment the] council is considering today upholds the original intent of the ordinance,” he said, adding, “the long-term interest in preventing tobacco-related disease in our community far outweighs the potential short-term disruption to business.”

 

Council response 

“Our friends at Smoke-Free Generation talked to us about the problem with youth tobacco and the youth seeing the tobacco, the way it’s marketed to look like bubblegum, very cool,” said council member Fran Holmes at the meeting. “I thought the exception for the tobacco shop was warranted because [teenagers] cannot walk into the door.”

Holmes ended up being the only member to support the exemption, which Safi said surprised him. Based on comments made to him and at the May 20 work session, he said he felt that a majority of the council was in favor of exempting the store. 

In minutes from the work session, Mayor David Grant said he didn’t want to force anyone out of business and council member Steve Scott said he would be receptive to the exemption. Brenda Holden seemed undecided and Dave McClung said he would be in favor of delaying implementation but did not wish to reopen the ordinance. 

The night of the July 8 hearing, Scott said he thought the exemption would only last until the store’s license was up for renewal at the end of the year. Upon learning the store would remain exempt until a change in owner or location, he no longer supported the change. 

Holden and McClung opposed the exemption from a public health standpoint and Grant said he didn’t want to exempt only one business from the ban. No one made a motion to approve or table the amendment, meaning it was let go, but the council unanimously agreed to delay implementation of the flavor ban until Dec. 31. 

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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