St. Paul City Council votes to cut number of tobacco licenses, ban tobacco vending machines
The St. Paul City Council voted Wednesday to further restrict tobacco sales across the city.
The council unanimously passed an ordinance that would remove tobacco vending machines in the city and reduce the amount of tobacco shop licenses.
If approved by Mayor Melvin Carter, the ordinance will lower the number of available tobacco shop licenses from 150 to 100 and tobacco product shop licenses from 25 to 15, in addition to moving the penalty section into the matrix penalties under section 310 of the legislative code.
A spokesman for Carter’s office indicated the mayor plans to sign the ordinance into law.
Tobacco shop licenses are given to businesses like convenience stores or liquor stores that sell tobacco and do not necessarily require their patrons to be 21 years old. Tobacco product shop licenses are required for smoke shops that require patrons to be 21 or older, derive 90% or more of their revenue from tobacco sales and have at least one staff member dedicated to tobacco sales.
There are currently 201 tobacco licenses throughout St. Paul, according to a Department of Safety and Inspections spokesperson.
Stores with existing tobacco licenses would be grandfathered in as long as they applied for their license on or before July 31, 2021, remain in compliance with city regulations and apply for renewal within a year of a license expiring. The exception does not apply to businesses that have previously had a tobacco license revoked.
“We’ve had lots of calls from people wondering if they’re having their tobacco licenses taken away, and we’ve said, ‘No, but if you have it taken away or it’s revoked for noncompliance, there’s not one waiting for you to get,'” City Council President Amy Brendmoen said Wednesday.
Business groups weigh in
The decision comes despite opposition from several groups.
The National Association of Tobacco Outlets said in a letter to the Council earlier this month, “We recognize that existing businesses are not impacted by these limits and that they apply only to new establishments and locations. Nevertheless, the number is entirely arbitrary, chosen with no factual basis.” The letter goes on to say, “There is simply no need to make this change,” citing a decline in tobacco use.
The Minnesota Retailer’s Association also offered caution in a letter to the Council earlier this month, writing, “If St. Paul enacts these restrictions, there is a high likelihood that tobacco users will continue to seek to purchase these products outside the city limits. This not only defeats the intended purpose but also results in a loss of revenue for businesses within St. Paul.”
The letter, which was also signed by the Minnesota Grocers Association and the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association, goes on to say, “Restrictive policies in this regard may inadvertently lead to negative consequences such as the closure of established businesses, potential job losses, and the erosion of community wealth.”
Lance Klatt, the executive director of the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association, joined in criticizing the vote.
“I don’t understand how a unit of government continues harming small community businesses investing in tobacco shops, stripping their licenses considering the same unit of government allowed these same small community owners to build tobacco shops by taking away the right to sell legal Flavored tobacco products,” Klatt said in a statement.
Others, however, welcomed the council’s vote.
“Really excited,” said Esha Seth, the program director for the Association of Nonsmokers-Minnesota. “This is intended to reduce availability and access of these products to reduce youth rates of smoking and commercial tobacco product use over time.”
Seth acknowledged the change will occur gradually.
“It’s not going to be as significant right away,” she said. “Over time, it will reduce density of commercial tobacco product retailers.”
Seth added, “We’re hopeful over time the council will continue to reduce the license cap even more.”
Brendmoen anticipates the city will keep drawing down the number of available licenses.
“Our goal at the end of the day is to keep reducing these licenses because we do not believe that the loss leader or the lure into the stores should be tobacco,” Brendmoen said at Wednesday’s meeting. She added that eventually the number of tobacco licenses could be tied to the number of cannabis retailers.
Cutting back on smoking
The measure is the latest effort to curtail smoking in St. Paul.
In 2021, the city passed a litany of restrictions on tobacco sales that established a $10 minimum on packs of cigarettes and tins of smokeless tobacco; banned the sale of menthols and other flavored tobacco products; codified a half-mile buffer between licensed tobacco retailers; and banned coupons and discounts for tobacco and vape products.
The 2021 measure also established the current 150-license cap and created two classes of tobacco licenses to differentiate between convenience stores and tobacco-focused businesses. There were approximately 190 licensed tobacco sellers at the time.
Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance to ban all smoking in public parks and within 25 feet of entrances, exits and windows of public spaces and places of employment within the city.