MANKATO — Potential legal costs and uncertainty about public opinion prompted the Mankato City Council to take a cautious approach on banning the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco and vaping products, despite support among council members for the concept.
Liz Heimer of the American Lung Association made the case for banning the sale of vaping products infused with candy-themed scents and tastes and other flavorings attractive to young smokers. Heimer, along with Minnesota State University Associate Professor Mary Kramer and Blue Cross and Blue Shield representative Bukata Hayes, also stressed the importance of prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes, flavored chewing tobacco and other flavored nicotine products.
“Our bottom line today is flavor hooks kids,” she said. “... And we’d love to have Mankato lead the way.”
Heimer noted the city’s pioneering work on prohibiting smoking in indoor public places and its eventual passage of an ordinance boosting the tobacco-buying age to 21, known as T-21. The latest request would put the city in the company of nearly 20 other communities in Minnesota to pass restrictions on the sale of flavored smoking and tobacco products.
Kramer, who teaches in MSU’s College of Allied Health and Nursing, laid out a long line of statistics to back her initial comment: “Nicotine use among the youth is an epidemic.”
Even among kids as young as eighth-graders, 11% report using regularly, Kramer said. About one in four students in high school or middle school are using e-cigarettes, and 85% of those vapers are using flavored products.
Hayes talked about the long history of success by tobacco companies in recruiting new users. Menthol-flavored cigarettes were the profitable tactic in the African American segment of the marketplace.
Less than 30% of white smokers use menthol brands while 88% of Black smokers do. Flavored vaping products, many of them labeled in ways that would fit perfectly in a candy aisle or among a display of breath mints, is at the heart of the strategy to hook the next generation.
“This is the same sort of game plan used by big tobacco to lure African Americans,” Hayes said.
Although council members seemed persuaded by the arguments, they wondered about the ramifications of an ordinance that would impact smokers and users of flavored chewing tobacco who graduated from high school decades ago.
“There’s 50-year-old guys who have been chewing forever, they chew on the worksite,” Council member Jessica Hatanpa said, adding she doesn’t have the same sense of public opinion on the issue as she did with the T-21 debate. “My job is to do what the people I represent want. I don’t know what they want.”
Council member Jenn Melby-Kelley also warned about the much broader impact of this proposed ordinance.
“This is a monster one,” Melby-Kelley said. “We’re going to have to hear how a lot of people think.”
The tobacco industry and vape-shop owners are already weighing in via their lawyers.
Along with providing the council with the information from the anti-smoking organizations, city staff included a couple of newspaper stories about the legal consequences a ban can provoke.
Just last week, the Star Tribune reported Prior Lake is being sued by a smoke shop over the city’s ordinance banning the sale of flavored vaping products. And Edina is defending itself from a lawsuit filed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and two convenience stores claiming the city’s ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes is “draconian,” “overbroad,” and “unconstitutional,” according to another Star Tribune story from last year.
Council member Mark Frost, who led the effort to boost the tobacco-buying age, was more cautious at Monday night’s work session: “This is not going to be cheap. ... I don’t think I want to drag the city of Mankato into a multi-million-dollar legal dispute.”
Council member Karen Foreman noted America seems to have a much more antagonistic political environment now than it did when Mankato banned smoking in indoor public places 15 years ago or even when it approved T-21 two years ago.
“The community and the atmosphere have changed considerably,” Foreman said.
Mayor Najwa Massad said she needs to know whether North Mankato or even Eagle Lake would consider matching any effort in Mankato to restrict flavored tobacco. Council member Dennis Dieken wondered if philosophical consistency would require the city — after telling people they couldn’t use flavored tobacco — to also prohibit the sale of flavored alcoholic beverages.
Council President Mike Laven, though, wanted to end the discussion with a least some forward momentum on the issue — even if it was slow-motion momentum. He suggested asking staff to explore the legal language that would best protect the city against potential lawsuits and bring a report back to the council for possible action in 2022.
City Manager Susan Arntz, noting the desire for more input from Mankato residents, recommended she work with the city’s communications staff to develop a community engagement plan to gauge public opinion. And Massad and Frost intend to test the level of support among North Mankato’s elected officials during an Intergovernmental Committee meeting next month.
“We support you 100%,” Massad told the local group pushing for the new ordinance. “... (We’re) just trying to figure out the next steps.”