Columbia Heights city council is pushing to ban indoor smoking or the sampling of tobacco products, a move that a local business says could force it to shut down.
The city council proceeded to a first reading of the draft modification of the city code on May 24 and will proceed to a second reading during its meeting on Monday June 14 at 7 p.m., date on which it could give its final approval to the ‘order.
Columbia Heights director of community development Aaron Chirpich said at the May 24 meeting that the police department carried out compliance checks on licensed tobacco establishments in late 2020. On November 6, 2020, two companies failed compliance checks and received citations for selling tobacco to minors. . The companies named were the Smoke & Vape Shop at 2311 37th Ave. NE and Afandina Cafe at 4001 University Ave. BORN.
“The report of these violations sparked a broad conversation between city council members and staff regarding the regulation of tobacco sales and consumption in the city, particularly the regulation of indoor smoking and sampling. “Said Chirpich.
The Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act already bans smoking tobacco, including e-cigarettes, in most indoor public places, in public meetings, in workplaces, and on public transportation. But the law allows smoking tobacco products in tobacco stores for the purpose of sampling.
Hookah bars and cigar rooms have used this exception as a loophole to sell tobacco products that customers use in the store under the guise of sampling. There are several places in the Twin Cities metro area where you can just go and smoke on the spot.
But according to the interpretation of state law by the Minnesota Department of Health, this is not legal.
“Companies whose primary purpose is to provide a place where customers can smoke are breaking the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act (MCIAA),” the Minnesota Department of Health Indoor Air Unit Supervisor wrote, Daniel Tranter, in a letter to the city of Columbia Heights. “Although the MCIAA contains a provision that allows customers or potential customers to light tobacco in dedicated retail tobacco stores ‘for specific sampling purposes’, this exemption does not apply to dedicated smoking lounges. . The authors of the freedom to breathe changes at the MCIAA wanted the exemption to allow customers to try part of a tobacco product at a tobacco store to determine if they would like to purchase more of the product. to smoke elsewhere.
Tranter said establishments that allow indoor smoking in violation of the Clean Indoor Air Act may be subject to enforcement procedures, which could include penalties of up to $ 10,000 per violation.
Although the Department of Health says smokehouses are illegal under state law, the city’s proposed ordinance would remove the ambiguity and explicitly close the sampling loophole by prohibiting all indoor sampling. .
Many cities have already taken similar action, including neighboring Fridley and Hilltop, as well as Arden Hills, Bloomington and Minneapolis.
Hookah Kingdom, which is located at 4919 Central Ave. NE and has been operated in the city by the current owners since 2015, says the proposed ordinance would hurt its business and could even shut it down.
According to a letter to the city council from Hookah Kingdom accountant Husein Ahmed, 65% of the store’s gross sales come from in-store tobacco sampling, which helps in the sale of hookah and tobacco products.
If the ordinance passes, Hookah Kingdom is expected to reduce its staff from an average of nine employees to just two employees.
“With a reduction in sales, it would be extremely difficult to stay open and maintain all business expenses,” Ahmed wrote. “We are bound by a lease agreement which has 4 years and 3 months remaining. “
Ahmed added that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the affairs of the Hookah Kingdom.
In a public hearing on May 24, Hookah Kingdom attorney Kathleen M. Loucks told city council that since the store opened, “he has been forced to retain a lawyer and has spent thousands of dollars tackling alleged city code violations and beyond to ensure Hookah Kingdom adheres to the chapters and verses of city and state codes, be it ventilation, electricity, fire, seat occupancy and other safety regulations.
She also highlighted the cultural importance of the hookah.
“As it stands, the Hookah Kingdom is the only tobacco shop in the city of Columbia Heights that offers hookah samples,” Loucks said. “As you are no doubt aware, hookah is a cultural practice that is largely of Middle Eastern and African origin. In fact, around 99% of Hookah Kingdom customers are from Africa or the Middle East. The practice of hookah sampling has cultural and historical implications for the Muslim community of Columbia Heights. The city of Columbia Heights already limits tobacco licenses to three. For a company that has already struggled significantly with the pandemic and has faces significant revenue loss from 2020, the sampling ban could actually force Hookah Kingdom to shut down. ”
The city has been here before
In October 2014, the city council considered banning indoor sampling of tobacco products. During the public second reading hearing, a former owner of the Hookah Kingdom said if the city banned sampling, it would shut down. Many more spoke at the public hearing in support of Hookah Kingdom.
Ultimately, the 2014 city council chose not to ban sampling.