Tobacco sales proposal ignites ‘Menthol War’

(Lindsay Fox BY C.C./MGN Online)

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 30 percent of U.S. Blacks smoke cigarettes (25.5 percent), cigars (7.5 percent) or smokeless tobacco (two percent). Smoking can lead to heart disease, cancer and stroke, and Blacks have the highest rates, adds the CDC.

Researchers also report that menthol, which might be more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes, is most popular among Blacks. Nine out of every 10 African Americans who smoke prefer menthol tobacco.

The Minneapolis City Council will hold public hearings on July 24 on a proposed tobacco sale restriction ordinance in non-tobacco stores. Since last winter, battle lines have been drawn over the issue. Proponents argue that it can help lead to a healthier city. Opponents claim that it will lead store owners to economic calamity if they can’t sell tobacco.

The MSR talked to both sides.

LaTrisha Vetaw, NorthPoint policy manager (Photo courtesy of LinkedIn)

“It’s sensationalizing,” states NorthPoint Health and Wellness Policy Manager LaTrisha Vetaw, referring to how the issue has been portrayed in the media. She supports the city council’s plan.

“We are concerned about an underground market for tobacco products that will emerge if council members approve the plan,” says Tom Briant, the National Association of Tobacco Outlets executive director, who is among the opponents.

Vetaw adds that misinformation has been found in various media accounts. “The word ‘ban’ has been overused” in published stories, she points out. “Most media outlets like the word rather than ‘restrict.” Smokers will still be able to buy tobacco products, but only at tobacco stores, she notes.

But Briant argues that any restriction on tobacco sales will hurt all convenience stores to the tune of an estimated $73 million annually in lost sales. When asked where this figure was derived, he explained, “You divide 325 [stores] with $73 million and you get $226,000” on average per store. “You cannot replace that kind of lost revenue.”

“They really inflate that [figure],” counters Vetaw.

The St. Paul-based nonprofit Association for Non-Smokers-Minnesota ( also noted that national reports show convenience stores make more money from food, snacks and packaged beverages sales than tobacco, and if tobacco sales, especially menthol, were restricted to adult-only tobacco shops, convenience stores would lose an estimated $1,519 per store per month.

A National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) data sheet points out that tobacco sales account for 17 percent of in-store profits and 36 percent of total sales. There are 207 convenience stores, including gas stations, in Minneapolis.

Briant cited figures from the Coalition of Neighborhood Retailers that tobacco sales in Minneapolis is indeed a huge business — almost $50 million annually on menthol cigarettes, plus nearly $22 million on other tobacco products and around $600,000 in vapor product sales. “If you don’t have gasoline out front, you’re a small corner market in Minneapolis,” he continues. “You rely much more heavily on tobacco products for a greater amount of revenue and [a] greater amount of net income to pay your employees.”

(MGN Online)

He also warns that a restriction could lead to negative consequences. “Someone will come in and sell [tobacco] out of their car or back of a van. They are not going to care who they sell it to as long as it’s cash,” including kids, he stressed. “We don’t want that.”

Vetaw, however, calls this a form of scare tactics: “There’s always that other side that comes in and puts fear in people,” she says, remembering that this also occurred during a meeting she attended in February hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton in opposing tobacco restrictions. “He was here on Reynolds America dollars,” she complained.

R.J. Reynolds is the country’s tobacco giant. Menthol cigarettes are their top seller. A FairWarning article said that a Reynolds spokesperson confirmed that the company paid for Sharpton and others’ travel expenses for these appearances as well as made contributions to their organizations, such as Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Sharpton was in town “to scare the African American community,” recalls Vetaw, who also was quoted in the FairWarning story. “Historically the tobacco companies have given the African American community a lot of money to kill us. Somebody found out that Black people had a liking [to menthol] and they started [running ads] in Jet Magazine” that featured Blacks, dating back to the 1960s, she points out.

“We [Blacks] bought into it,” admits Vetaw. “All of the people I love were smokers,” including her grandparents, an aunt and a best friend. “I grew up with a father who was a chain smoker who died very young. He knew he should have stopped but just kept on smoking.”

As a result, Vetaw also has enlisted local Black organizations such as the Minneapolis Urban League, the NAACP and the African American Leadership Forum, among others, to help combat opponents such as Brient’s organizations and others. “I’m trying to strengthen my coalition… We need some strong Black leadership” to voice support for the plan, she said.

But Briant argues that the plan limits choice: “[City residents] should have the right to purchase tobacco products where they want to purchase [them].” He also said that if convenience stores are indeed forced out of business as a result, residents who shop there will be severely affected “if they don’t have access to a Cub Foods or a Hy-Vee.”

“I just think Minneapolis should pass this” when the council is expected to take up the proposal in August, said Vetaw.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to


Related content: Sharpton straddles fence on menthol cigarette ban


4 Comments on “Tobacco sales proposal ignites ‘Menthol War’”

  1. 2.51 Billion. That is the Annual health care costs in Minnesota directly caused by smoking – $2.51 billion. There are ways to help urban convenience stores redevelop their marketing and merchandising to make up any lost funds. Do we want to help save peoples lives and ensure the health of our youth and adults, or would we rather be so shortsighted. I applaud the Minneapolis City Council and NorthPoint Health and Wellness Policy Manager LaTrisha Vetaw.

  2. Can someone show me one study in which menthol cigarettes are deemed to be imore harmful than regular cigarettes? Why not ban the entire category? And to the lady above me, you know your stats are complete BS…right?

  3. I, too, would like to see the study that indicates menthol cigarettes are more harmful than any other cigarettes without menthol. My instinct tells me it’s bogus. I, also, would like to see the study that proves the advertising of menthol cigarettes is directed to, and entices, African-Americans to prefer menthol cigarettes over any non-menthol brand of cigarettes.

    As a former smoker and a student of human nature, it is my opinion and experience that when young people start smoking it has, almost, nothing to do with any advertising directed to their ethnic group or any other group of people. It is pure peer pressure and the desire to be considered cool or adult among your friends that also smoke, that starts them to smoke. That very same peer pressure that starter the smoker also starts the brand of product, as well. Just honestly ask yourself why you bought one product over another and, almost always, it’s because a peer or family member bought it first.

    Plus, if the advertising mantra, or reasoning, is correct about how we buy cigarettes, African-Americans would be dressed in western gear and riding a horse or standing in some wide open space in the woods or near a stream smoking Marlboro’s, a non-menthol brand, until a recent addition of a menthol-flavored cigarette to their brand’s assortment of tastes. All because of that demon advertising.

    To stop the habit of smoking is difficult, at best, and there are many studies that prove the detrimental health consequences of smoking and it’s expensive medical costs in dollars and cents. However, to encourage people to stop smoking shouldn’t be accomplished by blaming advertising (there hasn’t been cigarette advertising on television for over thirty yeas) or the desire of African-Americans to fit in with a peer group. Those types of tactics create more negative stereotypes and, Lord knows, we’ve had enough put on us already. Why not try an honest, common sense and intellectual approach to get younger people to stop smoking, without also hurting the businesses that sell a legal product with a demand to be purchased. If we can accomplish that without the hysteria and hype, then there will be no demand for the product.

    Thank you for listening.

  4. Yo…how do you propose making up for the lost revenue for corner stores? Thats some stupid crap that fake progressive white people say…”we’ll help them figure something out”….that’s one very colonial and imperialist approach to the world. You have no idea what you’re talking about…City Council isnt blind, they just dont care that a new, crime ridden cigarette trade will undoubtedly happen. Violence over cigarettes, forcing people who want to stay away from liquor stores go inside just to be cigs. This is so stupid for a million reasons, and as racist as laws come. Minneapolis is so full of crap. Such a selfish city, volunteer center of the country because we need to feel good about ourselves. Ugh

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