Push to raise cigar prices could reach Minneapolis

The St. Paul City Council agreed on an ordinance that would increase cigar prices to curb youth tobacco use.

Kate Clark

A recent push to raise cigar prices and keep young people from smoking could soon catch on in Minneapolis.

Late last month, the St. Paul City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that would increase the price of single cigars to $2.10 before sales tax.

This movement could spread to Minneapolis, and some University of Minnesota students say they would be supportive.

The measure closely follows a similar price hike enacted earlier this year in Brooklyn Center that aimed to deter young smokers from purchasing tobacco.

“We know … that one of the most effective ways for reducing tobacco use is to raise the price of tobacco,” said Alicia Leizinger, the Ramsey Tobacco Coalition’s program and policy specialist. The group advocated for the Brooklyn Center ordinance and talked with St. Paul’s City Council about underage cigar purchases.

Latrisha Vetaw, the program coordinator for the Breathe Free North Project, said her group collaborates with the Ramsey Tobacco Coalition and is trying to pass similar restrictions in Minneapolis.

She said she is currently working with Ward 5 City Councilman Blong Yang to raise cigar prices.

“That is what everyone is talking about right now,” Vetaw said. “It has been effective, so we’ve been working on a policy around flavored little cigars, single cigar pricing and minimum pack size.”

The ordinance focuses on small or flavored cigars, which Leizinger believes is being targeted to youth.

“Kids have told me that they prefer the flavored products because it masks the harshness of the tobacco,” Leizinger said.

Child psychology and philosophy junior Erin Lowenthal, who smokes, said she can understand the increased prices when it comes to preventing young smokers.

“If it’d decrease youth smoking, I’d be fine with it,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want young adults smoking.

She said the ordinance would likely be effective.

“[Young adults] smoke those little cigars, so that might actually divert them from smoking those if they raised the price,” Lowenthal said.

In May 2013, the Ramsey Tobacco Coalition looked at stores around St. Paul and found that the average price for a single cigar was $1.08, while others sold for only 50 cents, Leizinger said.

Cigarette smoking among youth has decreased to 15.7 percent — the lowest on record, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance.

Cigars allow the tobacco industry to evade the heavy restrictions placed on cigarettes, Leizinger said.

Minnesota sets minimum prices for cigarettes, and nationwide they cannot be sold in packs fewer than 20 or be flavored with anything other than menthol.

Sometimes, the only difference between the two products is that the cigars contain finely milled tobacco in their papers, Leizinger said.

Because of the lower level of scrutiny, cigars are viewed as a safer alternative to cigarettes, although they are equally harmful, she said.