St. Paul could ban single sale of cheap cigars

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The next issue in the battle over tobacco is cheap little cigars. Anti-smoking activists in Minnesota are urging municipalities to put new restrictions on the sales of single cigars and cigarillos, which are popular products at gas stations and convenience stores, and often purchased by teenagers.

Brooklyn Center was the first city in Minnesota to crack down on the sale of those products in June. And the St. Paul City Council will vote this week on whether to adopt the same restrictions, MPR News reports.

The ordinance would ban retailers from selling single cigars unless they're priced at $2.10 or more. Cheap cigars would have to be sold in packs of five or more.

These are not your grandfather's old stogies. Little cigars and cigarillos are popular with young people because they're much smaller than traditional cigars; they typically cost between 50 cents and $1 apiece; and they come in different flavors such as chocolate, strawberry, grape and pineapple.

They are, indeed, becoming more popular. A recent survey of Minnesota high school students says 28 percent of them have tried smoking little cigars at some point. The rate is higher for high school boys, at 36 percent.

The federal government banned most flavored cigarettes in 2009, saying they would be too attractive to children. But that rule wasn't extended to cigars.

And that's a problem, according to organizations that want to reduce smoking among teenagers. The Association for Non-Smokers-Minnesota notes that smoking cigars causes similar health problems as cigarettes. It says the flavorings in cigars help mask the harshness of the smoke and can lead new smokers to become addicted.

Since teenagers are more sensitive to price, the group argues that raising the cost of little cigars to $2.10 each will discourage young people from buying them.

Retailers are fighting the new ordinance, saying it will cost them business. Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association, said consumers will simply cross into a neighboring community to buy cigars, and then they'll buy gas and other products outside of the city, as well, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Case in point: The owner of the Royal Tobacco Shop in Brooklyn Center says since his city's ordinance went into effect in June, he's lost about $20,000 in sales per month, according to MPR News.

Anti-smoking groups say the same economic arguments were raised when communities debated whether to ban smoking in bars and restaurants and the impact turned out to be minimal, according to MPR. Instead, they hope that other cities will decide to follow the lead of Brooklyn Center and St. Paul.

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