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Menthol tobacco products targeted in Duluth

DULUTH, Minn. — Anti-smoking advocates are calling on the city of Duluth to restrict sales of menthol tobacco products to adult-only tobacco stores.

"The city licenses tobacco vendors," said Pat McKone of the American Lung Association in Duluth. "The city can decide where menthol and other flavors are sold and not sold, and we are looking to move those products out of what are approximately 85 licensed convenience stores (in Duluth) ... to adult-only tobacco stores, of which there are six."

McKone was joined in a news conference on Friday, Oct. 27, by Phillip Gardiner, a longtime civil rights campaigner who is co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. Gardiner works out of the office of the president of the University of California in Oakland, where a similar ordinance to the one proposed for Duluth was passed in September.

"If you limit the spots (where it can be purchased), then the ability for kids to interact with that drops down significantly," Gardiner said. "And this, we think — in fact we know, will improve the public's health."

Gardiner, who has a doctorate in behavioral sciences, was in Duluth at the behest of the American Lung Association and the Duluth chapter of the NAACP for a talk on "How Big Tobacco Targets African Americans" at the Pier B Resort.

The major tobacco suppliers use menthol flavoring to particularly target African Americans and marginalized groups, Gardiner argued.

"Menthol, specifically, is the starter product for youth," he said. "It allows the toxins ... in tobacco to go down easier. If they weren't in there, kids would not be able to take up cigarettes so readily."

The data show that menthol tobacco products are marketed more aggressively in African American communities and are cheaper in those neighborhoods, Gardiner said.

The upshot is that African Americans die disproportionately from tobacco-related diseases when compared with other groups, he said. Moreover, women use menthol products more than men, the LGBT community uses them more than other people, and people with behavioral health issues also are more apt to use menthol products.

Yet when Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention Act in 2009 that outlawed 13 flavors from tobacco products, menthol was exempted, Gardiner said. "Of course that's the biggest flavor in use, and that was a compromise. ... The most marginalized people got thrown under the bus."

McKone agreed, noting that in the general population, the Minnesota smoking rate is 14 percent, but in minority and marginalized populations the rate is anywhere from 40 to 90 percent.

Gardiner, 68, said he became involved in the Black Power movement in 1968 and has been a civil rights activist ever since. But his ah-ha moment regarding tobacco came in 1998 when he read the surgeon general's first report on health disparities and saw that African Americans were dying disproportionately of heart attacks, lung cancer and other afflictions that can be related to smoking.

"We estimated a few years ago that 47,000 African Americans die each year of tobacco-related disease," he said. "This is more than gunshots, arrests by the police, all the other issues ... combined."

Yet people seen as leaders among African Americans are in league with Big Tobacco, Gardiner said.

"The Al Sharptons of the world take money from the tobacco industry," he said. "The Ben Chavises of the world take money from the tobacco industry."

That's starting to change, he added, with organizations such as the NAACP coming out against the sale of menthol tobacco products. "(They) called on their local and state affiliates to join with us, which they have done here in Duluth."

McKone said she has spoken with a majority of City Council members and Mayor Emily Larson on behalf of an ordinance to restrict sales of menthol tobacco products. She doesn't anticipate any action until after the first of the year.

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