‘Protecting kids:' Hennepin County restricts sale of nicotine products

Convenience stores in some Minneapolis suburbs will be banned from selling nicotine products under an ordinance that the Hennepin County Board approved Tuesday.

The ordinance, which passed on a 6-1 vote, allows only tobacco shops to sell flavored nicotine and menthol products. It also raises the legal tobacco-buying age to 21 years old.

Convenience store owners fear the new regulations will cost them sales revenue. Advocates for tougher tobacco laws said the vote in Minnesota’s largest county was a momentum-building victory to push for statewide restrictions.

“This is about protecting kids,” Commissioner Jan Collison said. “I understand there will be businesses affected. I don’t think anybody can disagree with that. I’m not sure it’ll be catastrophic.”

The restrictions affect five suburban cities where Hennepin County has jurisdiction – Greenfield, Mound, Rockford, Rogers and St. Bonafacius – plus Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, according to the ordinance.

Jeff Johnson, a two-time Republican candidate for governor, was the sole commissioner to vote against the ordinance.

“I think largely this is not about protecting kids,” Johnson said. “It’s about controlling adults because we think we know better how they should live their lives.

“And I think we’ll probably run a few small businesses into the ground in the process.”

When people find out they can’t buy tobacco products at convenience stores in some suburbs, they’ll go elsewhere for chips, pop and gasoline purchases too, said Meghan Shea, a representative for the store owners.

“We’re a little disappointed,” she said after the vote.

Advocates for tougher tobacco laws said convenience store owners would not be hammered by the ban on flavored nicotine sales.

“We heard that same thing when bars and restaurants went smoke free, that bars and restaurants would close,” said Emily Anderson of the group Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation. “We did not see that financial impact.”

Hennepin County joins seven Minnesota cities – including Minneapolis – to both restrict flavored nicotine sales and raise the tobacco-buying age to 21.

This spring, state lawmakers failed to pass a more limited change that would’ve only raised the legal buying age.

“We just don’t give up. We use these as a way to build momentum,” said LaRisha Vetaw of the pro-regulation Menthol Coalition. “When (the 2020 legislative session) starts back, we’ll be talking about what happened here in Hennepin County in the hopes that we can have something pass statewide.”

The Hennepin County ordinance also imposes a minimum price of $3 on cigars.

Until last month, it would’ve prohibited store clerks under the age of 18 from selling tobacco products. Facing pushback from convenience store owners, commissioners removed that restriction.