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A new year, a new City Council, what should we do? What pressing issue from the last year should we tackle first? Should we figure out a way to trim the budget, so we don’t have to lay off city employees? Should we figure out a way to increase property tax revenues by selling surplus city-owned property to private investors? No. What say we ban a legal product from being sold in convenient locations, but allow it’s sale in exclusive outlets that only cater to the 21 year-old-plus crowd.
On Jan. 22, 2018, city councilors Barb Russ and Zack Filipovich introduced an ordinance that proposes to restrict sales of menthol cigarettes and other flavor-infused tobacco products to adult-only smoke shops. Councillor Russ was quoted in local media, saying, “We’re going to go a long way with eliminating cigarette smoking, it’s still a killer in this country. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but people are dying every day from the bad habit of smoking cigarettes.”
So, she’s not sure what the percentage is, but she’s willing to strike a mortal blow to the convenience stores and gas stations around the city of Duluth by forbidding them to sell a legal product? Who does she think she is, Caesar Augustus? Benito Mussolini? I’ve read Donald Trump tweets that had more research behind them than that. Since when does a two-bit city councillor have such power to destroy a tax-paying business in our city, based on a whim? She hasn’t even taken the time to look up the statistics she is basing her job-killing edict on. It isn’t going to ban cigarettes, it is going to take away a revenue stream from a business whose profit margins are not lush to begin with.
Convenience store/gas stations have taken blows over the years. My grandfather owned one for many years. In the 1970’s, the advent of “self-serve” pumps at the newer stations began to wreak havoc on the filling station business model. The gasoline at the self-serve stations was a few pennies cheaper, so it might cost you 20-40 cents less to fill up compared to the full service station. Stations everywhere converted at least half of their pumps to self-serve, some keeping the full service option. My grandfather never went self-serve. He hung on to the bitter end until he retired, then the new owner made it self-serve.
Another innovation that harmed the industry was the “pay-at-the-pump” option that started proliferating in the 1990’s. A definite convenience, but the way a small gas station works is, the operator makes little or nothing from selling gasoline, their profits come from selling food, maps, candy, cigarettes, and whatever else they can, inside the store. When people pull up to the pump, insert a credit card, fill up,then drive away, the convenience store gets little to nothing in the way of profit. Most stations are located in prime commercial spots, paying top-dollar taxes, and genuinely provide a service to the community. You are not going to get the lowest price on groceries or aspirin, or most items, but on winter days when the snow is piling up, and nobody can get around in their vehicles, you can bet the convenience store down on the corner is open.
Perhaps there is another, more sinister reason for this ordinance. According to studies conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health, 74% of adult African-American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. (http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/hpcd/tpc/topics/menthol.html) Even if the intention of Councillors Russ and Fillipovich was not to discriminate against ADULT African-Americans in Duluth, the result of this ordinance does precisely that. The stores will still sell Marlboros and Camels, the choice of rugged white cowboys and educated hipsters, basking in the irony of their poor choices in spite of their elite enlightenment.
In recent years, Duluth has become home to an increasing number of African-American individuals and families. Is this how we welcome them? Whether by design or by accident, this ordinance sends a message to our new neighbors that we want their choices limited. Everybody knows that cigarettes cause health problems. Adults can choose to take that risk. It is their right as a free citizen. Cars get into accidents, planes crash, bears eat people. Adults still have the right to choose to drive, fly or hike in the woods.
The “Nanny State” is a result of having unqualified people in positions of local power. These councillors seem to think that it is their job to meddle in everybody’s business and life, because they lack any insight when it comes to solving budgetary problems and runaway taxes. Making a city completely unattractive to prospective businesses is not what the City Council should be doing. There are growing communities all around us, Hermantown, Rice Lake, Proctor, Superior, etc., who would love to get all the revenue we spurn. You can’t have a city that only has non-profit organizations and tax-exempt real estate. Somebody has to stay in business to keep the streets lit and the toilets flushing.
Let us hope this ordinance dies a quiet death, and that the City Council spends their energy solving some of the real problems that Duluth faces.