Opinion: Menthol, Politics and a Lack of Control

The current regulatory atmosphere? It’s not vindictive; it’s just politics.

By 
Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

"So, are you for, or against?”

The question was posed to my photographer and me by a 20-something woman in a minty green T-shirt. We were shut in an elevator with the woman and her companion, riding up to the third floor of Minneapolis’ City Hall for a public hearing on a menthol ban. The photographer and I looked at each other, obviously in the presence of ordinance supporters poised to practice their arguments on someone.

I finally found my answer: “We’re the press.”

Disappointed, she looked away, and we completed our ascent in Minnesota Nice silence until the ding of the door announced our destination: the crowded corridor outside council chambers. There, c-store retailers in their own coordinated shirts—this time, red—milled about, awaiting their time at the podium. Our elevator companions had found their prey.

A Blind Spot

While nothing compares to the battles retailers and suppliers must fight, being a trade publication is at times a tightrope. At our core, we at CSP are journalists, and we seek to present a balanced story that offers a complete look at the landscape. It’s why we interviewed Cam Gordon, the Minneapolis councilman who co-wrote the menthol-ban ordinance, for this month’s cover story. It’s why we included quotes from some of the pro-ordinance speakers alongside the retailers fighting against them. It not only provides a complete picture, but it also shows the industry what it’s up against, and what talking points are being used against it.

At the same, we are trade journalists, which adds a task to the job: to give our audience tools and insights to build a better, more profitable industry. We want the industry to thrive, and that desire can make retailers’ wins and losses feel like our own.

So while I may have entered the Minneapolis council chambers in July with my reporter’s hat on, it was the pulse of the industry beating in my heart. I sat in that room for hours, watching Clay Lambert from Metro Petro, our July cover subject Lonnie McQuirter and many others plead their case against the ordinance and the unintended consequences of pulling menthol out of the city’s c-stores. I also listened to the pro-ordinance contingent state their own stance. They didn’t have a solution for the c-stores in the room, but rather saw them as a necessary casualty.

Suddenly, the political felt very, very personal, and I itched to return to the elevator and engage in that invitation to dissect a misguided ordinance riddled with blind spots and unnecessary victims. Instead, I returned to the office and dug into helping the rest of our editors write our cover story.

Given the lawmaking climate at the state, city and county level, this month’s cover story on the mounting regulations facing c-store retailers was a forgone conclusion. The only question was how we were going to reduce it to a mere eight pages. We took a list of regulatory issues plaguing the industry and prioritized them based on the biggest and most immediate threats, as well as what our readers have been drawn to on CSP Daily News. What rose to the top was tobacco, soda and gas taxes, minimum wage and data security.

But what permeated everything was an overwhelming lack of control in the face of opponents who do not care about building a better, more profitable c-store industry. It’s not vindictive; it’s just politics.

In city council chambers across the country, it’s every man for himself, their cause against yours, one political playbook against another. But the industry keeps fighting. Retailers are organizing, speaking up and stating their case. And what we hope to offer is a look at the strategies at play within these regulatory fights, as well as some tools that can help retailers to act.

Us vs. Them

The hardest moment for me at the Minneapolis public hearing came at the very end, when nearly everyone had filed out. I lingered, waiting to grab councilman Gordon for some follow-up questions. But someone else grabbed him first, leading him to a meeting room down the hall. I followed.

Inside, a large group of the pro-ordinance people remained: They wanted a picture with Gordon. I hovered outside the door, watching everyone gather and pose with a look of excitement, gratitude and relief—albeit not complete (the ordinance wouldn’t pass for another week). I thought of all those retailers heading back to their stores; there’d be no photo op with a councilperson for them. Just a feeling of being the bad guys in a losing proposition.


Abbie Westra is director of Winsight’s Retail Content Group. Reach her at [email protected].