Convenience stores burning over cigar crackdown

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — These days, where there’s smoke — or smokes — there’s fire. This time the conflagration started when local governments began raising prices on small stogies and cigarillos sold in more Twin Cities convenience stores.

Brooklyn Center this summer implemented Minnesota’s first ordinance aimed at reducing the affordability of flavored mini-cigars.

“We know these products are targeted at young people and popular among young people,” said Emily Anderson of the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota. “The goal is to make those products a bit less successful, by getting the price up, so that they are less appealing to young people.”

St. Paul began enforcing a similar ordinance this month, even as Bloomington, Minneapolis and Northfield consider following suit.

Yet small business owners maintain the latest anti-tobacco fad simply sends customers down the street to the next city over for a legal product that makes a big difference in their respective bottom lines.

“In effect, the ordinances are ushering in a new era of prohibition, that’s basically what it’s doing,” said Tom Briant, executive director of the Twin Cities-based National Association of Tobacco Outlets. “… This is very detrimental and damaging to retailers, because your average convenience store relies on tobacco sales inside their stores for 40 percent of their in-store sales.”

The Twin Cities suburb acted after a survey of local high school students found the number of men trying small cigars on the upswing, even as cigarette usage declined.

The City Council voted to set a minimum price of $2.10 per cigarillo, even in packs containing as many as four cigars, now sold for at least $8.40.

“We know that young people are particularly price sensitive and that they’re looking for cheap tobacco products, versus a pack of cigarettes, which now days cost seven or eight dollars,” said Anderson.

OUT OF REACH? MN has 99 percent compliance rate, best in the nation, for preventing tobacco sales to minors, suggesting young smokers get access to small cigars through other sources.

A pre-ordinance survey showed prices ranged from 45 cents to $1 per small smoke with 75 percent—16 of 22—convenience stores selling single flavored cigars. A September survey taken three months after the minimum price took effect found that stores selling individual cigars plummeted by half — to just five outlets.

“It appears to have worked. These products are a lot less common now in Brooklyn Center,” said Chris Farmer-Lies, who conducted the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota surveys. “Many stores decided to stop carrying them entirely, decided to stop carrying singles or decided to stop carrying packs of two and three.”

Winner Gas and Convenience, one of the few station stores still offering downsized cigars, has lost sales for other products, which customers no longer buy because they’ve moved on.

“People change their route now, they go somewhere else. They go to Brooklyn Park or Minneapolis,” said Tony Awad, owner of Winner Gas and Convenience. “…We’re not just losing that sale, we’re losing what comes with it — gas, groceries, chips, pop, candy, all that stuff.”

Competitors in neighboring Brooklyn Park lure customers with small cigars priced as low as 99 cents. “We’re benefiting from it, definitely. I’m selling more because a lot of people are coming to buy them,” said Mohamed Ali, manager of the Quick Stop in Brooklyn Park.

Retailers say government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers. With Minnesota’s best-in-the-nation 99 percent compliance rate in preventing the sale of tobacco products to minors, convenience stores view themselves as part of the solution, not the problem.

“We are not the source of cigars for kids, if they do smoke cigars. They get them from older friends, from parents, siblings, strangers, they bum them from somebody. It’s called social sources,” said Briant of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets. “… So it’s really frustrating, when we’re abiding by the law, and they come in and try to take all these products out.”

Local officials maintain retailers pay a small price compared to the potential health costs for people ultimately helped by the ordinance.

“I think it’s good if other cities are coming on board as well,” said Brooklyn Center Mayor Tim Willson. “I’m just pleased with the way the ordinance has worked out.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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