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Duluth stores to pull menthol cigarettes: Ordinance restricting sale of flavored tobacco products to kick in June 1

DULUTH — More than 80 local retailers will wind down sales of menthol cigarettes this week, as new restrictions on flavored tobacco products in Duluth take effect Friday.

Starting June 1, adults-only smoke shops will be the sole retailers allowed to sell such products, widely regarded as a gateway to nicotine addiction for young people.

Andy Verhel, owner of the Piedmont Milkhouse, said he aims to sell off his inventory of flavored cigarettes before the deadline arrives or risk having to eat the loss. He explained that as a one-store Duluth operation, he doesn't have any other outlet for the products once new local restrictions kick in.

Verhel expects to have no problem running through his inventory of more popular smokes but acknowledged that deep discounts may be required to move some of the slower-selling brands off his shelves before Friday.

"If I don't sell them, they do me no good, because I don't smoke," he said.

While Verhel expressed concern about no longer being allowed to sell flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and chewing tobacco, he said he'll take less of a financial hit than some other convenience store operations. Verhel figures flavored products account for about 10 percent of his tobacco sales. He is adding a new line of specialty chocolates and novelty candies in hopes of bolstering business on another front.

State recognition

As part of a statewide Trailblazer Tour honoring communities across the state that have taken steps to improve public health, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota recently recognized Duluth as a leader in the campaign to discourage smoking.

Pointing to Duluth as evidence of "the power of locally driven efforts," Scott Keefer, vice president of public affairs for Blue Cross/Blue Shield, said: "I think that's something more broadly that we're trying to support with the tour, especially in Greater Minnesota."

Keefer said tobacco companies have marketed flavored products as a way to bring new customers into the fold, so reducing young people's access and exposure to such products should diminish people's odds of developing a lifelong habit.

"From a clinical standpoint, there is nothing that turns around one's health trajectory as quickly as quitting smoking, and even better than quitting smoking is not starting to smoke in the first place," Keefer said.

Supporters of new restrictions on flavored tobacco products launched a "Lethal Lure" campaign in Duluth, and one of the local spearheads was Pat McKone, regional senior director of the American Lung Association.

She expressed confidence that the ordinance Duluth passed in February will have an impact on the number of young people who take up smoking.

"Flavored products, including menthol, are the most popular products reported by youth in their initiation to tobacco," she said. "I have no doubt this is going to make a difference."

Pre-emption

Duluth and other cities have proven to be leaders in tobacco regulation, but McKone isn't surprised there have been efforts to curb their authority with state legislation that would pre-empt local control. She suggested tobacco interests with deep pockets hold less sway at the local level.

"They know they have much more power at the state and federal levels, because they're spending $1 million an hour to market a deadly product. And they spend thousands of dollars during legislative sessions across the country, millions of dollars to fight the work we're doing at those levels," she said.

"But they're less effective at the local level, and pre-emption is one of the big cards in their deck. They want to stifle that ability of communities to make those decisions," McKone said.

In Minnesota, local governments lead, she said, with policies passing "here and then there and then there."

"And pretty soon half of the state is already covered, for instance when we were fighting for clean air. Duluth led that effort," McKone said.

Push for 21

What's next on McKone's to-do list? She hopes Duluth will limit sales of tobacco products to people who are 21 years of age or older.

If it does, the city will follow in the steps of eight cities, including Minneapolis, which voted in its policy Friday.

"We're certainly going to be out there this summer educating the community," McKone said.

But she acknowledged much legwork will be required to succeed.

"You know, the menthol and other flavored-tobacco products campaign didn't happen overnight," she said, noting a three-year campaign of education and engagement that preceded the Duluth's soon-to-be-implemented rules.

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