Hennepin County poised to impose tough nicotine restrictions

Hennepin County is poised to impose some of Minnesota’s toughest restrictions on tobacco and flavored nicotine sales.

The Hennepin County Board is likely to vote July 9 on a proposal raising the legal tobacco-buying age to 21 years old and banning convenience stores from selling flavored products, including menthol.

Convenience store owners oppose the proposal and say it will hurt their sales, and have successfully lobbied to remove a third provision that would’ve raised the minimum age of sales clerks. Meanwhile, public health advocates are supporting the effort. 

“What we hear from (cities) time and time again is, ‘OK, we’re doing this – what is the county doing? Wouldn’t this be better to have countywide?’ So this is one step towards that,” said Hennepin County Public Health Director Susan Palchick.

The new rules would not take effect county-wide, because Hennepin County does not have jurisdiction over all cities. Instead, the restrictions would cover Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and five suburban cities:

•    Greenfield
•    Mound
•    Rockford
•    Rogers
•    St. Bonifacius

Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, said the “patchwork” of ordinances was hurting convenience store owners.

“Especially since this impacts a small number of cities, it’s conceivable that your customer might just go across the street to another city, and take their business,” Nustad said in an interview.

Some businesses have lost $40,000 to $100,000 a month when other municipalities have banned them from selling flavored products, he said.

“Flavored tobacco is definitely the No. 1 issue for those retailers that will be impacted,” Nustad said. “It’s a large chunk of their business. It will have a big impact.”

Under Hennepin County’s proposal, adult-only tobacco stores would be the lone sellers of flavored products.

The proposed ordinance also imposes a minimum cigar price of $3.

Until last week, it had included a fourth restriction that convenience store owners also opposed: banning clerks under the age of 18 from selling tobacco.

Amid opposition, the county board’s Health and Human Services committee voted 5-2 on June 25 to strip that part out.

“I think it’s a little bit of an overreach in what is otherwise a good effort,” said Commissioner Mike Opat, who offered the amendment to remove the sellers’ age restriction.

In an interview before the committee vote, Palchick said underage sellers were a major concern.

“Just think about the peer pressure of a 16 year old to say 'no' to somebody, to say 'no' to their peers, to not sell,” she said.

If the ordinance passes next week, Hennepin County will join seven Minnesota cities that have both raised the legal buying age and restricted flavored product sales to adult-only stores, said Laura Smith, a spokeswoman for the group ClearWay Minnesota, which supports the restrictions.

Those cities are Minneapolis, Duluth, Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lilydale, Lauderdale and Mendota Heights.

State lawmakers sought a more limited proposal this spring that would’ve raised the legal age to buy tobacco to 21 years old. The effort failed.