New city tobacco restrictions unsettle local businesses

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 7:07pm

Tobbaco Rose Cigars store on Stadium Boulevard

Tobbaco Rose Cigars store on Stadium Boulevard Buy this photo
Sinduja Kilaru/Daily

 

The recently approved city ordinance raising the minimum age of tobacco purchase to 21 in Ann Arbor has been met with a cold reception from local business owners directly impacted by the law.

At last week’s City Council meeting, about a dozen public health officials representing local hospitals and national advocacy groups — who worked with Councilmember Julie Grand (D– Ward 3) in spearheading the law — testified on behalf of the expected public health benefits of the restriction.

Following them, Chris Rosenthal, owner of Tobacco Rose Cigars, located on East Stadium Boulevard, took the podium to oppose the bill before the council decisively voted 9-2 in its favor.

“I’m out-credentialed, I’m out-dressed, I’m out-documented, I’m out-numbered,” Rosenthal said, referring to the preceding speakers in the public hearing. “But I own a small business.”

In an interview with the Daily, Rosenthal, who primarily sells premium cigars, said that even though he doesn’t disagree with the health risks posed by smoking, he disagrees with the manner in which City Council pushed the bill despite state statutes barring municipalities from independently setting restrictions on tobacco sales.

“More than one member of Council said on the record that they knew it was out of their authority to change this ordinance,” Rosenthal said, implicitly referring to Councilmembers Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5), Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) and Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4). “And I get them being progressive and wanting change, but they blatantly broke their oath, and it’s disheartening; they didn’t even put that on the ballot to let the public vote on it.”

Rosenthal added that most of his opposition to the restriction is based on principle, as younger consumers do not buy as many high-end cigars. Nonetheless, he drew issue with what he views as the arbitrariness of the law; it would still be legal for 18-year-old Ann Arbor residents to purchase cigars in Ypsilanti and smoke in his store.

Mohammad Hassan, store manager of Bongz & Thongz on East Liberty Street, said he expects stores selling supplies for vaporizers — whose users are disproportionately younger — to be significantly hurt by the new ordnance.

“In Ann Arbor we have a whole community of vaporizing (vendors), and pretty much it’s going to hurt them,” Hassan said. “We have a huge vaporizer shop downstairs and it’s going to be hurt pretty bad because a lot of our customers are from the age of 18 to 20.”

Hassan said that, though he is not as concerned about the law affecting his store because most of its business comes from selling artisan glass pipes, he wants to start a petition drive with other tobacco shops to roll back the regulation.

“(The regulation is) going to hurt a lot of people, and I do think it will shut down a lot of shops here in the city and possibly in the state of Michigan,” Hassan said. “I think businesses should wake up. I’m more than happy to get together with other businesses, but a lot of people aren’t going to wake up until it does hit and it does affect.”

Hassan also added he expects the new law will be devastating for responsible student smokers under 21 because they must now resort to illicit means to obtain tobacco.

“Raising the age limit to 21 is probably going to make a lot more kids try to find different ways to have people purchase the cigarettes,” Hassan said. “From 18 now to 21, it’s a huge jump. So if somebody’s been smoking for two of those years and can’t smoke anymore, what do you expect them to do? There’s going to be people finding different ways to scam the system.”

Three other stores carrying tobacco products in Ann Arbor declined to comment for this story when approached by Daily reporters.

Despite the protests of individual cigar and cigarette business owners, little evidence could be found of a wider backlash from the local business community.

Andy Labarre, director of government relations for the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce, told the Daily in a phone interview that he doesn’t expect the regulations to significantly affect the local economy and that the chamber will not take an official position on the ordinance.

“I don’t think there’s a notion that it’s going to have any substantial impact on the local economy,” Labarre said. “To be frank, it’s more viewed as the Ann Arbor City Council acting outside its jurisdiction. … That happens from time to time.”

Labarre also added that no local businesses have approached the chamber with concerns regarding the new restrictions.

Councilmember Grand, who initiated the tobacco legislation, told the Daily the profit margin on cigarette sales and demand for tobacco products from 18-to-21-year-olds is so small that she wasn’t concerned about any adverse effects on the local economy.

“The interest in having the ‘Tobacco 21’ ordinance isn’t about the impact on businesses; it’s the impact on the health of young people in our community,” Grand said. “We did think about this impact (on local businesses) and determined that any small impacts that are made were worth it on balance with health benefit.”

Grand added that she has only faced scattered opposition to her legislation from business owners; namely from Rosenthal and an out-of-town advocacy group representing the tobacco industry.

Rosenthal said he has been approached by a number of multi-regional law firms, whose names he declined to disclose, seeking to challenge the ordinance as a pro-bono civil rights case on the basis of the ordinance's contradiction to state law. However, he said he is still undecided over whether to challenge the city in what could ultimately be lengthy litigation.

“I really do love this town. … I’m not going anywhere,” Rosenthal said. “If I take this to court, it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to the city. Does Ann Arbor have the money? Of course they do, but it’s kind of a waste … but I don’t know (if I will sue), it’s going to be a moral decision.”