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.
“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 (ANSRMN.org) 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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.